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Listening means Discovery

Interview with Cheryl Tipp Curator of Wildlife & Environmental Sounds at the British Library

Image of library records on shelves

Section of the British Library’s 7000 species reels containing more than 30,000 individual recordings of birds, mammals, amphibians, fish, reptiles and invertebrates.

LxD: Thank you very much for agreeing to take part in this interview. Could you please introduce yourself to the reader with a short listening focused outline of you and your work.

My name is Cheryl Tipp and I am Curator of Wildlife & Environmental Sounds at the British Library. I care for one of the world’s largest and comprehensive collections of natural history sound recordings, which means that listening is very much a part of my everyday work. Whether I’m trying to confirm the identification of an unknown species, previewing recordings for an upcoming exhibition or showcasing some of our star items to student groups, listening sits at the very centre of what I do. 

LxD: What does listening mean for you?

Listening means many things for me. It means work, as so much of my job involves listening. It means discovery, as listening allows me to experience the sounds of species and habitats that I have never had the opportunity to encounter in real life. It’s my own personal sonic transportation device. Finally, it means awareness and a way for me to get the most out of my surroundings.


LxD: In what way does your work, research or practice involve listening?

As curator of one of the largest natural history sound collections in the world, my work naturally involves a lot of listening. Whether I’m cataloguing field recordings from a new collection or researching long forgotten animal imitators, listening is at the very heart of what I do.  


LxD: What is it you hear in your work and research?

I hear knowledge, perseverance, enthusiasm, struggle, extinction, variety, potential and hope in my work.

Edward Avis. English Bird Imitations (Columbia 4263)

LxD: Do you listen out for something particular, do you work with a pre-given set of auditory expectations and aims, or do you start defining aims from what you hear?

When I first listen, I listen with completely open ears. Once I’ve made a preliminary assessment of a recording I can then begin to define aims such as a recording’s potential for reuse and in what context. Having an idea of the suitability of a recording for scientific, artistic and educational use is a handy tool when dealing with a collection containing over 220,000 field recordings.

LxD: How do you engage your audience in those aims? How do you want them to listen and what do you want them to hear?

Our online catalogue includes guidelines on the sound quality of recordings which helps our audience quickly determine which sounds have the most potential for their particular project. I don’t however want to influence how they listen or what they hear. If I can curate the content, lay out the facts and encourage listeners to approach sound with patience and curiosity then I feel that I am doing my job properly.


LxD: Does the auditory material, the compositions, you produce contribute to a scientific or an artistic knowledge?

Recordings in the collection contribute to both scientific and artistic knowledge. Our material has been used by the scientific community to identify new species, bolster calls for improved legislation to protect threatened species or habitats and improve our understanding of the animals that share our planet. Artists have also drawn on the extensive holdings of the British Library’s wildlife collection to create new works that inform, challenge and interpret contemporary issues.

Sonogram of Chaffinch, Fringilla coelebs, song.

LxD: Could you describe the listening methodology, tools, technology, approaches, etc. you employ in your work. How do you listen?

My listening methodology varies depending on what I’m working on at the time. Listening through a desktop and headphones works for general cataloguing and curious listening, however freestanding speakers in a studio are necessary when more critical listening is called for. Spectrographic software is occasionally used in instances where closer scrutiny of vocalisations is required.


LxD: Do you use sound as a qualitative or a quantitative data: e.g. do you analyse the auditory material itself, your listening and the heard, or do you deal with its presentation as spectrogram, dB, etc.? And do you make aesthetic or scientific decisions in how you use this material?

My role is really to facilitate the analysis of auditory material by others rather than engage in this work myself. I have used spectrographic analysis for certain projects in the past but on the whole I’m more involved with the preparation of audio material before analysis.

LxD: Do you apply listening or the heard directly to solve a problem or answer a  question, or what application does the auditory data find in your work?

When working with undescribed recordings, where metadata or notation is limited or absent, listening plays a crucial part in the identification process, whether that be at the species or vocalisation level. Other applications include listening out for editing processes that could compromise the authenticity of field recordings and consequently impact on scientific analysis.


LxD: How do you think sound and listening can contribute to the understanding and responding to current, socio-political, geographical and ecological issues?

Sound is such an evocative medium that it has an incredible power to contribute to our understanding of current issues. There is perhaps nothing stronger than hearing the song of a species driven to extinction through the actions of humans. An inanimate specimen can only go so far in inducing an emotional response; sound however can stir the soul.


LxD: Have you written/produced or could you refer us to any reference texts, works, or other material that you would like to tell the reader about for our reference section?

  • Ranft, R. (2001) Capturing & preserving the sounds of nature. In ‘Aural history: essays on recorded sound’. The British Library.
  • Tipp, C. (2011) An overview of early commercial wildlife recordings at the British Library. IASA, no 37: 47-54 
  • Tipp, C. (2013) Listening to lost voices. In ‘What happens now? (what can’t you hear?)’. Noch publishing

Unsorted analogue collection of Scottish wildlife sound recordist Bill Sinclair.