Prick up your ears

October 20, 2006

Jisc has helped the British Library create a sounds archive that will add new dimensions to research. Philip Pothen tunes in

The story is that, in the 1990s, when the British National Corpus of Speech came to be digitised, it was not the actual sound recordings but rather the transcripts of those recordings that were processed. The recordings themselves were not considered important enough to be preserved and made available in digital form.

Times have changed. Last month, a major archive was launched that, for the first time, offers a significant body of sound recordings free to further and higher education.

The collection, drawn from the British Library's sound archives, contains 12,000 recordings totalling 3,900 hours of listening, all freely available to colleges, universities and users of the British Library's reading rooms.

It includes classical, jazz and popular music, unique musical and cultural recordings from Africa, interviews with leading lights of postwar British art, architecture and design and the history of recording technology.

Celia Duffy, head of research at the National Centre for Research in the Performing Arts, Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, led the user panel of academic experts that helped select the collections. "Our job was not only advising the British Library on content selection," she says, "but also to think about the ways in which the content was going to be used, the real-life situations that will make the recordings come alive to students and researchers."

How does she feel the archive will be used? "From my point of view as a musician, it is primary material. With the Beethoven quartets, one of 11 collections in the archive, you can get all sorts of recordings. But items come and go from record company catalogues. To have sustained access to these recordings, some of which have huge historical value, and to know they will be available for the foreseeable future makes a real difference to users in both teaching and research. They will support not only music history but the teaching of performance, too."

Peter Findlay, project manager, sees the Klaus Wachsmann Uganda Recordings as an example of what the archive is preserving. "Many of Wachsmann's recordings when he was curator of the museum in Kampala were made on acetate disks that are unique and highly fragile," he says. "They were of music and cultural activities in Uganda. In many cases, those cultures are disappearing, and all we will have of them will be these recordings."

He suggests that the Soundscapes collection - which contains sounds that reflect the cultural and economic life of communities, including natural sounds - will have a wide resonance and will tap into growing interest in the environment. "The archive is about access to relatively inaccessible resources," he says, "but it is also about the creative use of those resources. I think we will be surprised at the ways in which the recordings get used."

Like other projects in the Joint Information System Committee's digitisation programme, Archival Sound Recordings has broken new ground in technical innovations and in its approach to complex rights issues as far as sound resources are concerned.

"Many of the recordings had rights waivers in place," Findlay says, "but for others we had to contact rights owners to negotiate with them, with record companies or with rights organisations. The Sony Radio Awards collection, for example, contains complete broadcast plays, but permission for even the background music had to be negotiated. Previously, the music industry had always felt uncomfortable with the notion of downloads, even for educational purposes, but the project has achieved a lot by opening a dialogue with them."

But the archive will perhaps become best known for realising the potential and raising the status of sound recordings in education and research. "To hear performances, oral history, people's testimonies, is immensely important," Duffy says. "If you're a Western researcher looking at African music, history or cultural studies, there would be a serious question if you did not use primary sound materials such as these in your research."

Details: www.bl.uk/sounds

www.jisc.ac.uk/digitisation_home.html


Holistic approach to plagiarism

Much has been written about student plagiarism, but a great deal of the work undertaken has reinvented existing wheels.

There have been a few national initiatives that have made a difference, such as the Joint Information Systems Committee's decision to fund a licence for the Turnitin plagiarism detection software and its establishment of JiscPas, a Plagiarism Advisory Service. But they have been exceptions.

JiscPas has developed a Roadmap to help institutions identify gaps in practice and develop a holistic approach to academic integrity. If adopted widely, the Roadmap approach will provide a benchmark against which institutions can assess their progress.

The Roadmap is at the heart of the work of JiscPas. Institutions cannot meet the challenge of plagiarism by insisting simplistically on the detection of cheating; they must instil an institution-wide commitment that pervades all areas from senior management to support services.

In the Roadmap, six themes have been identified as being instrumental in the development of the sustainable model. Within each theme, a series of questions is posed. Can the institution, for example, show that the procedures for dealing with plagiarism are known and followed?

The next stage involves questions designed to highlight areas of concern.

Are there mechanisms in place, for instance, to check whether guidance has been followed?

Two institutions that have used the Roadmap to inform their approach to maintaining integrity are Northumbria University and Belfast Institute of Further and Higher Education. In both cases, it helped to inform the revision of policy and procedures.

Fiona Duggan is manager of JiscPas.

www.jiscpas.ac.uk

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