Work Placement at the British Library

Jordan Barnes, MA Ethnomusicology student

Since March 2015, I have undertaken a work placement for two days a week in the World and Traditional Music section of the British Library. At first it was a little overwhelming – security scanners, winding basement corridors, and shelves and shelves of rare and priceless books, manuscripts and sound recordings – but also very humbling and motivating. I spent the first couple of weeks settling in and getting to know the archive, the software, and the staff who are extremely helpful and informative. I then started working on the archive of recordings from WOMAD (World of Music, Arts and Dance), an annual music festival established in 1980 by Peter Gabriel to showcase international artists and music, and to encourage cross-cultural collaborations. WOMAD has since evolved into a major festival both in the UK and internationally, with events throughout the world. The UK festival has been recorded by the British Library since 1985, making this year the 30th anniversary of the WOMAD–BL collaboration. To mark this, the library is planning to celebrate at this year’s festival with CDs showcasing top past performances, past festival guides and art on display, with plans also for sound and information booths allowing visitors to browse and learn about the archive.

My role as an intern has been to document and categorise recordings from the festival. Through this I have learnt plenty of new names, developed software skills and helped organise over 2,200 recordings! This work has been a nice introduction to the archive, the festival, and the BL as a whole. If I need additional information, I can consult the physical archives, including festival guides from the 1980’s and 90’s. Through this work I have not only learnt a great deal about new music, but have also developed skills of archiving and recording. Another task I have been involved in is selecting, splicing and documenting tracks from WOMAD artists over the years, to be playbacked between performances at this summer’s festival. After talking to curators and recordists who have been attending the festival for many years, I added my own personal favourites from the archive. I then listened to and chose one or two tracks from each performance, creating different folders correlating with the time of day, the atmosphere of the particular tent and the mood of the audience in mind. If Seun Kuti and his band Egypt 80 are playing one night, the playback prior to the performance may include upbeat pieces with strong rhythms and brass. But if S:um is hypnotising the audience in the Siam Tent, the pre-concert music may likely include some relaxing ragas, floating ambience and hazy melodies of performances past.

Jordan Photo

Needless to say, I’ve really enjoyed working on this project, not only from my perspective as a musician, DJ and fan, but also as a student. There are also some great perks to a work placement at the BL including being able to explore the vast archive at any time of day: taking a break to dive into an old book or recording is encouraged by staff, indeed is a vital part of the placement experience as is being surrounded by some incredibly knowledgeable ethnomusicologists, engineers, historians and archivists. Picking the brains of my co-workers on a daily basis is one of my favourite parts of the job. I try to start a conversation with someone about their work, the library or just their interests each day I’m there. The amount of knowledge this place holds physically and intellectually is truly astounding and deeply humbling. I will miss it when my placement finishes, although they might have a hard time kicking me out!

Studio where I compile playlists for WOMAD playback

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One of the many listening opportunities that I have throughout the day

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