Before entering the world of museums – starting work at my local museum, The Atkinson – I graduated with a degree in film production. My passion for history reignited, I signed up for the MA in Art Gallery and Museum Studies with an eye on getting a foot in the door of a larger institution via a placement. For my placement, I had the pleasure of working as Sound Archivist for Archives+, an innovative digital archive based at Manchester Central Library. This placement immediately leapt out at me from the catalogue, as it would involve using editing software, a skill I was well-versed in from my undergraduate degree. On a more personal note, one of the reasons I originally applied for the MA programme – and the placement – was my brother saying he could imagine me working somewhere like Manchester Central Library. The opportunity to work in that very building just a year later was too poetic to pass up!
During my placement I mostly worked on a single collection of tapes, the Tameside Oral History Project. Recorded in 2005, the TOHP was an effort by Tameside Council to record the memories of migrants from South Asia who settled in the Tameside area in the mid-20th century. The collection was recorded onto MiniDisc, a popular format in the early 2000s that has since become obsolete and no longer receives software support from its manufacturer. As the discs degrade and devices able to play them become scarce, there is a very real danger that the precious memories recorded on these discs are vanishing forever.
The main challenge I faced was the lengthy process of digitising the tapes. I had to run an emulator, a recreation of an older computer operating system, within which I could run SonicStage, the software needed to create digital copies of the discs. I then listened to the resulting audio files to ensure they had transferred correctly, before depositing them in a pre-prepared folder. If the recording was split between several audio files – the result of the recorder being stopped and started during the interview – I needed to join them up into a single audio file using the audio joiner Shuang. In this case, I had to ensure the files were labelled correctly – otherwise the final file would have been very confusing to listen to! After completing this whole process, I made notes on the finished file in a tracking spreadsheet.
In addition to the main work of digitising the collection, I also created smaller sound clips from interesting anecdotes I came across in the English-language interviews. Using images from Tameside Council I found during my research, I was able to put together a proposal for a digital exhibition to be displayed in the Archives+ digital hub in the library. My proposal was approved, and I was able upload my very first exhibition, English Voices, Asian Stories, before the COVID-19 lockdown was announced. I completed the digitisation of all 157 discs of the TOHP on my last day in the office before the lockdown, and thankfully I was able to complete my placement via remote working, creating sound clips from another oral history collection.
I’m happy to say that I’ve been asked to stay on with Archives+ as a volunteer and will be continuing this fascinating work for the foreseeable future. I’ve learnt valuable skills in time management and independent productivity and now have valuable experience writing exhibition proposals and working with digital technologies.
Isaac Hart is a student on the MA Art Gallery and Museum Studies.