The Sound of the ‘Big Bang’: Cataloguing the Douglas French Archive

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UG Researcher Daniel Deegan outlines some of the benefits of spending 5 weeks transcribing audio cassettes – little did the speakers at the Westminster and City Conferences know that the next person to hear their recordings would be him!

The idea of spending 8 hours a day in a research library, alone, listening to recordings of 1980s politicians and businessmen discussing financial markets on old cassettes may not immediately appear as the most exciting way to spend a summer, but that’s exactly what I did, and it was brilliant. This summer I worked in the Cadbury Research Library digitising cassette recordings of Westminster and City Conferences, unearthing a wealth of unheard speeches and jovial conversations between the political and business class between 1979-2005, on important and interesting topics such as European harmonisation, the impact of new technology on financial services and regulatory reform.

My task was to digitise the cassettes into online audio files that are clear to listen to and easy to access. This involved using the software Audacity, which first meant mastering this technology. This appeared to be a complex process and required the help of library services to download MP3 converting software, but ultimately provided an easy and efficient way to convert the cassettes into a digital form and upload them onto a cloud sharing platform. Alongside digitising the cassettes I wrote notes on what was said and flagged up quotes and comments that were of potential value to the researchers. The speakers came from a plethora of professions and backgrounds and included well known figures such as John Redwood and Sir Leon Brittan, providing fascinating insights into the conversations being had at the top level of British politics and business in a vital period of British modern history, covering the reforms of the Thatcher government and the founding of the European Union. Within the current political climate there was enjoyable irony to hear senior ministers referring to the British as “Good Europeans”, and the current negotiations upon the British withdrawal from the European Union makes the conferences on British involvement in harmonization and integration even more interesting and valuable.

The opportunity to work on such rare and valuable material was an incredible experience. Many of the cassettes had not been played since they were first made, meaning I was the first person to listen to the speeches since they were first spoken at the conferences. This provided an incredible opportunity to engage with raw primary material in a way that has previously not been accessible to me as an undergraduate student. Throughout my time I was able to further develop dissertation ideas, and after discussing my thesis ideas with my supervisor, Emma Barrett, she kindly provided a suggested reading list which has been incredibly useful in research and furthering my ideas.

There are several people that I need to thank. The first is John Tibbits, the previous research scholar. Last year, John had the unenviable task of taking what was then an unorganised collection of files, cassettes and documents and organising them into a functioning and navigable archive. Using this, I was able to easily access specific conferences to digitalise and transcribe. I like to think my contribution this year in creating a guide of how to use the technology and software and setting a precedent of how to conduct the digitisation process will be as valuable to next year’s research scholar as John’s work was to me, but I expect that the future research scholar will be seen as John mark 3, rather than Dan mark 2.

I would also like to thank the staff of the Cadbury Research Library for their help over the course of my scholarship. They were friendly and incredibly helpful in finding the appropriate cassettes and keeping the recording progress on track. Learning to use the recording software to digitise cassettes and convert them into MP3 recordings was not a straightforward task and took patience and time. By the end of the scholarship I had learnt to use the technology with relative ease, and was asked by staff in the archive to write a guide of how to use the technology. I like to think I have become something of an expert on digitisation, although I expect a fair bit of luck and the help I received from library services were factors too.

Finally, I would like to thank my supervisors, Dr Matthew Francis and Emma Barrett. Whilst many of the other researchers were finishing their scholarships by August, I was only just starting mine. Having spent my year abroad at Keio University, due to Japanese term times I was not back in the UK until the end of July. Despite missing the induction sessions and meet and greets I was very lucky to have a warm and welcoming team in Matthew and Emma, who were both supportive throughout the scholarship.

This scholarship has been hugely beneficial to me and has aided my academic development. I was fortunate enough to meet other people conducting research in the Cadbury Research Library, and am going to be returning to the Library to conduct research on behalf of researchers from the American National Library of Medicine. I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in this programme, and would highly recommend it to other undergraduate students.

Daniel Deegan, BA History and Political Science with Year Abroad

Read about John Tibbits’ experience of cataloguing the Douglas French Archive in 2017 here

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