I worked for the British Library doing various jobs from 1999 to the end of May 2014. As the leaving date drew closer I thought it'd be a nice idea to record some of the distinctive sounds around the Library, both as a personal memento and for the interest of my website's visitors.
In the space of a few weeks I made about 70 recordings. Most of them weren't particularly good and one of the reasons is that the noise of the air conditioning system is very noticeable in many parts of the building and, somehow, it seems even more so when listened to on a recording than in real life. The list was whittled down to just 11 recordings. Small though it is, I hope this collection gives some impression of the different activities and environments in the Library, several of which the public don't get to see or hear.
The graphics version of this page has a collage of the Library made up of many photographs I took around the building. They're of things like the patterns of brickwork, close-ups of some of the tools and bits of machinery used in the Library, and some longer shots of the cafe area and the inside of a reading room. These are arranged like a pile of building blocks of differing shapes and sizes, which together depict the structure of the building in a very rough sort of way. The photographs of everything above ground are in colour, while those representing the basement levels are in black and white. The idea was to convey the impression of two linked but separate environments.
The collage is too tall to be seen at once without scrolling up and down, so there's a navigation system to its left which is modelled on a lift. It goes from the third floor down to the basement levels. Each floor has a button like a lift button, and when you click on it, the collage moves or down to bring the recordings for a particular floor in line with the button. Also, on clicking you'd hear a recording of one of the Library's lift voices corresponding to that floor. So you know what they sound like, here are all those voice recordings put together in one file:
All lift voices. Duration: 0:10.
On the Library roof. Duration: 2:00. Description: An obscure route leads from the third floor to a trapdoor in the roof. Once up on the roof you can hear the sounds of the surrounding part of the city, mostly building work from the nearby Francis Crick Institute.
Leather paring in the Conservation Centre. Duration: 1:40. Description: Old books sometimes need to have their covers repaired or replaced. Here a member of the Conservation team patiently pares away at a piece of leather with a small bladed tool, preparing it for being turned into a book cover.
Science reading room atmosphere. Duration: 2:00. Description: Straightforward recording of the partial hush inside the Science reading room on the second floor.
Floor 1 hubbub. Duration: 1:00. Description: Public areas of the Library are nearly always busy with visitors and researchers. This recording was made near the King's Tower library at around lunchtime.
The Library at 8 in the morning. Duration: 1:00. Description: Catering staff begin preparing for the day ahead. You can hear one of the coffee machines being cleaned and set up, and chairs being arranged.
Raindrops on a metal awning. Duration: 0:57. Description: Towards the rear of the Library, behind the staff canteen, aluminium awnings are fixed above some of the windows. Raindrops make a pleasant metallic pinging when they fall on them. Thanks to Will Prentice for suggesting this.
Digitising a wax cylinder. Duration: 2:55. Description: My friend Eve works as an audio technician at the Library and here she's digitising a hundred-year-old wax cylinder recording. After initial experimentation with different materials, cylinders became commercially available in the late 1880s. They co-existed for a while with early gramophone records before disappearing altogether in the late 1920s.
Visitors' tour. Duration: 2:10. Description: Groups of visitors can book guided tours of the Library. Kevin, who's running this particular tour, was one of the first people I worked with on joining the Library in 1999. His friendly, cheerful personality makes him ideal for the job. He's also one of the last people on Planet Earth to wear a monocle.
A walk around one of the basements. Duration: 2:28. Description: This recording was made by me walking briskly around one of the basements with my stereo mic setup. First you can hear the loud clatter of the Library's automated book retrieval system, which consists of overhead conveyor belts where crates of books glide to their destinations on steel rollers. Later, there's the trundling of book trolleys and you can hear the faint voices of some of the basement staff.
Boiler room noise. Duration: 1:54. Description: Vast boiler rooms comprise the heart of the Library's heating system. This recording just gets louder and louder as I walk slowly around one of them.
Basement hum and trains. Duration: 3:50. Description: With the working day over, the basements are given over to the faint hum of lighting transformers and the rumble of tube trains passing close by.
The London Sound Survey 2018. A Creative Commons Licence applies to all site content except where stated otherwise.