As part of its vast collection of literary and historic treasures (the Magna Carta, Leonardo da Vinci's notebook), the British Library owns some six million sound recordings, including significant theater productions, famous voices (like J.R.R. Tolkien's), and field recordings of extinct animals. Some of them date back to the earliest and most fragile days of recording technology.

Now, as the Telegraph reports, the library is launching an urgent campaign to digitize and preserve its collection.

The sounds of British history, from the voice of Florence Nightingale to the testimony of First World War soldiers, could be lost forever within the next 15 years, the British Library has warned. Experts at the library claim important and unique sources are at risk of disappearing.

Among its stores are recordings ranging from the call of now-extinct birds, to 40 years-worth of plays starring the likes of Sir Laurence Olivier and Peter O'Toole and the entire national collection of music.

Stored in a range of formats, from cassette tape to wax cylinders, staff at the British Library have now warned time is running out to preserve them safely.

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As you might suspect, it ain't gonna be cheap; an estimated $60 million will need to be raised.

Speaking to the Telegraph, the British Library's Will Prentice emphasized the urgency of the situation:

"We run a real risk of losing part of our collective memory," he said. "Certain sounds or collections may become unplayable and we may lose important parts of our heritage."

Among the portion of the collection considered most at risk – due to the nature of storage or its importance to the nation – includes the national collection of music, recordings of local accents and dialects used to monitor the evolution of the English language and sounds of steam engines, coastal regions, factories, weather and other environmental soundscapes.

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The Telegraph has a selection of recordings the in-progress preservation project has saved to date; they include a snippet of J.R.R. Tolkien chatting about shopping for tobacco. You can hear 'em here.

Tolkien image via Blastr.

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