This case study focuses on the journey of a collection of German sound recordings through a variety of different institutions, examining the changing assessment of its value through time and across different locations. The collection in question is currently held by the British Library (BL) and comprises some 9,000 German-language recordings dating from 1930 to 1943, including a number of political speeches by high-profile Nazis, recordings from public events such as party rallies, and the occasional piece of music or drama.1 These recordings are held on approximately 4,500 double-sided shellac discs which are thought to be a subset of a collection intended for the National Socialists’ unrealised Reichsschallarchiv [Reich Sound Archive], the central sound archive that was intended to preserve the sounds of Hitler’s Germany. To protect the recordings from bombardment during the war the original metal matrix discs (also known as disc stampers) were secreted away (along with the contents of many other archives) in a mineshaft where they were discovered by Allied troops as they crossed Germany in April 1945. The discs were hurriedly re-pressed from these matrices and despatched to London where they passed from the hands of the War Office to the Foreign Office (FO) and were assessed as possible evidence for the prosecuting team at the Nuremberg trials. From there the discs were passed to the BBC and, after a decade of being used in programme making at the BBC European Service, then on to the newly formed British Institute of Recorded Sound (BIRS) in the mid 1950s. When this institution was merged into the National Sound Archive at the British Library, the discs moved too, and they remain at the St Pancras site today. The collection has recently been digitised as part of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project (UOSH, part of the Save Our Sounds programme) which will make them more widely accessible to researchers.2

Like many displaced archives, this collection of discs (henceforth ‘the collection’) has been repeatedly re-assessed for the value it offers its holder on its journey through multiple institutions, both German and British.3 This perceived value – as with all archival objects – is related to both the content and context of the objects within it. The content of these recordings remains unchanged since the collection’s original inception; at every stage these recordings have been valued as a product (whether that be in a cultural, political, or technological sense) of late Weimar- and early National Socialist-era Germany. However, the context of the collection has changed multiple times, and this has influenced the more immediate value the recordings are perceived to offer those with access to them. In this paper I will discuss how the context of an archival collection influences the perceived value of the objects within it and how, in this specific instance, these changing perceptions propelled both the preservation and movement of the collection. The use of the term ‘translocated’ in this study is informed by recent work in the museum and heritage sector focusing not strictly on displaced objects themselves but more widely on ‘the actual phenomenon of the transfer itself, with all the associated traumas, discourses, actors, gestures, techniques and representations.’4 Some have argued that the prefix trans- brings greater connotations of transformation, reinforcing the idea that the act of moving changes the nature of an object in some way.5 The term is therefore used in relation to this collection to capture the sense of motion through multiple institutions, but also to acknowledge the changing flows of power that propel the movement of heritage collections, and the marks these movements leave upon the collections themselves. The story of collections such as this which pass through multiple institutions, undergo reassessment and reintegration into different collections, and continue to generate new layers of metadata along the way also illustrates the fluid aspects highlighted in the records continuum model, acknowledging that the capture, organisation and categorisation of archival objects is rarely a sequence of linear steps, but rather a network of interconnected activities which often recur.6

Context and Archival Value

It has been argued, by Karen Gracy for example, that the value of an archival object does not emanate from the object’s intrinsic qualities but rather it is attributed to it by the community evaluating it according to their own interests; in other words, that the value of an object is determined by its context. She draws on the arguments put forward by Randall Mason (writing in regard to conservation planning), that ‘values are produced out of the interaction of an artifact and its contexts; they don’t emanate from the artifact itself.’ 7 Mason acknowledges here that an individual object will be placed in multiple different contexts, resulting in a diversity of values. While these contexts may succeed each other, Gracy highlights that they can also overlap temporally; an object can simultaneously be attributed with different values by different communities as each will offer a different context with which the object interacts.8 These discussions of community-attributed value are often focusing on the contrasting priorities between, for example, a cultural heritage institution such as a museum and an informal community on a public platform such as YouTube. However, the multivalence of archival objects is also demonstrated by case studies such as this where historic collections have passed through the hands of both broadcasters and other organisations and been re-assessed for their value according to the needs and priorities of each. This case study also demonstrates the multiple levels at which an archival object is simultaneously contextualised, as the national and political contexts of those organisations have also been influential factors. Focusing in on the objects themselves, the crucial importance of the accompanying archival documentation is also made clear.

Histories of broadcast archival collections tend to record two main drivers for their creation and preservation: the potential re-use of recorded material in broadcast programming, and perceived long-term historical value. As a general rule, the former has preceded the latter and has meant that broadcasting organisations and their working disc libraries were the earliest large-scale sound archives in many countries.9 In the British context, for example, the BBC was collecting both commercially available records and recordings of its own broadcasts in the 1930s, pre-dating the creation of a national sound archive organisation by some twenty years.10 A BBC memo from 1950 outlining the purpose of its Permanent Library of Recorded Programmes emphasises the department’s specific focus on supporting programme making, suggesting that without such a tight focus, sound archiving would be too great a task to undertake:

The primary function of the R.P. [Recorded Programmes] Permanent Library is to build up a storehouse of recordings for future use in BBC programmes. In carrying out this function it is at the same time forming a collection of recordings which has a wider historical interest (…) The emphasis on broadcasting needs, however, gives a concrete aim and leads to more practicable criteria of judgement than the somewhat vague aim of “laying aside records for posterity.”11

The amount of available material here is perceived to be so large that, according to this memo, criteria are required to judge what is worthy of preservation and what is not. This pressure to select only a subset of material for preservation is common to all archives but is often exacerbated in the case of audio-visual (AV) collections by the demands that AV carriers impose on their holders; AV recordings are expensive not only to produce but also to maintain, requiring space but also temperature and humidity control, as well as facing the perennial issue of obsolescence as technology evolves for both sound carriers and players. Such collections therefore need to justify the costs associated with their preservation and in some cases AV holdings are therefore more routinely or rigorously examined for their ongoing value than, for example, document collections.12

These issues naturally confront all organisations who hold AV collections, not only broadcasters, and must be balanced against the fact that a larger and more diverse collection is likely to prove more versatile, whether an organisation’s aim is the production of radio programmes or preserving historical material for posterity. In the words of BBC sound archiving pioneer Marie Slocombe:

When you’ve only got twenty such records on the shelf, there isn’t a great deal you can do with them, is there, after all? You can’t make many programmes; you’re not going to quote from them very often. But when you’ve got 2,000, it begins to look a little more promising. When you’ve got 20,000, people begin to say “ah-ha!”13

Here Slocombe highlights the way that an individual archival object’s value is influenced by its context as part of a wider collection; having only one recording of birdsong (or one example of a Goebbels speech) with nothing to compare it to is unlikely to yield great results for either the radio producer or the historical researcher, making a ‘one-off’ lone item potentially less valuable. As part of a wider collection, however, the individual value of each item is slightly heightened as it offers more scope to potential users.

For any individual item within a collection to be useful to a potential user, however, they have to be able to find it, and here the primacy of accompanying documentation comes to the fore. Given the practical constraints facing researchers of all kinds, an archival collection without a catalogue or similar document revealing what it holds and where is essentially valueless, as they will not be able to extract the object or objects they need with any precision in a reasonable amount of time. On the one hand, this case study amply demonstrates the importance of such documentation (and, as is discussed below, without a copy of the original German catalogue, the disc collection would have been largely worthless to holders and unlikely to survive as long as it has). On the other hand, it also reminds us of the power existing catalogues and classification systems have to influence the future growth and development of collections, and that a collection can continue to generate further documentation as it interacts with different institutions. The impact of the National Socialist era on archival methods and classifications within Germany and elsewhere has been discussed in the existing literature, but the particular reliance on NS-era radio catalogues with regards to this collection raises questions about the neutrality of such documentation and, I would argue, reinforces the suggestion that they should be viewed as part of the archive and analysed in view of the ‘tacit narratives’ they contain.14

Development and Re-location of the Collection, 1930–1945

The roots of the collection stretch back to the early years of radio archiving in Germany and the founding of the first German radio archive by Hans Flesch, director of the Berlin Funk-Stunde radio station, in January 1930. At this early stage, the focus was on preserving the ‘musical and literary experiences of our times’ and retaining this material for use in future Hörspiele (radio plays) and historical programming.15 While some speeches by political figures were preserved (for example President von Hindenburg), party political events were not recorded for broadcast and radio was generally theorised as a cultural medium.16 There was also as yet no centralised archiving effort, with the author of one early article on the subject expressing a hope that other regional broadcasters would follow the example of the Berlin Funk-Stunde and that the national Reichs-Rundfunk-Gesellschaft (Reich Broadcasting Corporation or RRG – at that point an umbrella organisation overseeing largely independent regional broadcasters) might begin to collect copies in its capacious new building, Haus des Rundfunks (Broadcasting House).17 Within two years the Berlin station’s archive had indeed combined efforts with the RRG whose Schallarchiv (sound archive) already contained some 9,000 discs. Having built up the capability to make and store sound recordings, the RRG archive had also extended its remit beyond that of a broadcast production archive and was by this point actively making and storing recordings without a direct view to broadcasting them. For example, many Reichstag sessions from the early 1930s were recorded and archived, but only one speech from this period was ever broadcast.18 In order to ensure that these recordings were not accessible for programming, details were not recorded in the published archival catalogue: only the matrix number and date were listed, and, in place of any description of speakers or content, they were simply labelled as ‘gesperrt’ (blocked).19

Outside observers also evaluated the RRG archive as something more than a content library for programme makers, with one visiting journalist in 1932 suggesting it offered something uniquely valuable ‘not only for the radio, but also for our cultural life in general,’ enabling the preservation of the ‘Zeitbild,’ whether that be through political events such as the 1930 celebrations marking the end of the Rhineland occupation, or the sound of a car engine.20 By 1934, the Schallarchiv had grown to include 23,000 matrices and some 80,000 discs and was discussed by its head Konrad von Brauchitsch as a means to preserve a comprehensive ‘Geschichtswerk’ reflecting ‘our eventful times.’21 He expressed regret that, prior to the National Socialist takeover, so few political recordings had been included in the archive:

How interesting it would be if today we had recordings from the major political movements of right and left that struggled for power before the takeover. Unfortunately, from this time we find almost exclusively recordings of the government.22

In contrast, for von Brauchitsch the recordings that had been added to the archive since the 1933 takeover covered everything of political importance and offered future generations an audio record of ‘these great times’ which was ‘impossible to falsify.’ He conceptualised the recordings not only as a means by which to preserve National Socialist events and voices but also ‘an image of the German unity which our generation is experiencing’. By preserving an image of a nation ‘united’ behind Nazism, von Brauchitsch framed the archive as a guardian of the movement’s ideology, declaring that ‘the sound archive should be a faithful steward of these values.’23 This perception chimes with views expressed by Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels that as much original National Socialist material must be preserved as possible so as to minimise the opportunity for future generations to reinterpret the work of the Führer and stray from the path established in the 1930s and 1940s.24 These National Socialist additions now form a core part of the collection held at the British Library.

These additions not only comprised new recordings made from January 1933 onwards, but also copies of private recordings of National Socialist Party (NSDAP) events that were inserted retrospectively into the RRG archive. The addition of these recordings can be seen by comparing various editions of the RRG’s archival catalogue; the first two catalogues were printed befor the National Socialists took power, the first covering 1929-1931 and the second, smaller edition, covering 1932 and adding in some additional 1931 recordings to the collection (approximately 30). The third catalogue edition, the first produced under National Socialist control, covers the period 1929–1936 and brings everything held in the archive up to that point into one volume. Each catalogue has an index of names where you can find all the recordings featuring or relating to a specific figure. To take one example, looking up Joseph Goebbels in the NS-era catalogue reveals 119 entries, of which just eleven are dated before January 1933. Of these eleven, only five are included in the Weimar-era catalogues covering the same period, suggesting six are retrospective additions. The table below shows these eleven recordings that feature Goebbels and their entry in each catalogue edition.

Table 1

Archived RRG recordings featuring Joseph Goebbels 1929–1932, in date order.

Featured in catalogue
Weimar era NS era
Matrix number Date Item Heading in 1936 edition25 1929–1931 1932 1929–1936
1 Bln. 491/503 5/6.2.31 Reichstagssitzung am 5./6.2.31: 2. Beratung des Reichshaushaltsgesetzes über 1931 (X)26 X X
2 Bln 202.2302/25 23.2.32 57. Sitzung des Reichstags: Beschluβfassung über den Wahltag für die Wahl des Reichspräsidenten X X
3 Bln 202.2501/38 25.2.32 59. Sitzung des Reichstags X X
4 RRG 23695/98 23.6.32 Ausschnitte aus einer Rede des Gauleiters der NSDAP für Berlin-Brandenburg, Dr. Goebbels, anlässlich einer Parteiveranstaltung des NSDAP am 23. Juni 1932 (Umschnitt von Gelatineplatten, Privataufnahmen, technisch nicht einwandfrei) X
5 RRG 23595/601 u. 23694 9.7.32 Ausschnitte aus der Rede des Gauleiters der NSDAP für Berlin-Brandenburg, Dr. Goebbels, und Ausschnitt aus einer Ansprache des Gruppenführers der SA-Gruppe Berlin-Brandenburg, Graf Helldorf, im Lustgarten zu Berlin am 9.7.32 (Umschnitt von Gelatineplatten, Privataufnahmen, technisch nicht gut) X
6 RRG 23380/88 15.7.32 Rede des Gauleiters der NSDAP für Berlin-Brandenburg, Dr. Goebbels, anlässlich einer Veranstaltung der NSDAP am 15.7.32 (Umschnitt von Gelatineplatten, Privataufnahmen, technisch nicht immer einwandfrei) X
7 Bln 207.1801/09 18.7.32 Reichstagsabgeordneter Dr. Paul Joseph Goebbels über “Der Nationalcharakter als Grundlage der Nationalkultur” X X
8 RRG 23602/05 24.7.32 Ausschnitte aus der Rede des Gauleiters der NSDAP für Berlin-Brandenburg, Dr. Goebbels, und des Führers Adolf Hitler anlässlich einer Parteiveranstaltung im Stadion in Berlin am 24.7.32 (Umschnitt von Gelatineplatten, Privataufnahmen, technisch teilweise nicht gut) X
9 RRG 23585/94 14.8.32 Rede Dr. Goebbels und große Teile der anschließenden Rede des Führers anlässlich einer Veranstaltung der NSDAP im Sportpalast in Berlin am 14.8.32 (Umschnitt von Gelatineplatten, Privataufnahmen, technisch nicht immer einwandfrei) X
10 RRG 23293/23324 24.10.32 Rede des Gauleiters der NSDAP für Berlin-Brandenburg, Dr. Goebbels, im Sportpalast zu Berlin am 24. Oktober 1932 (Umschnitt von Gelatineplatten, Privataufnahmen, technisch gut) X
11 RRG 211.1701/32 17.11.32 Rede Dr. Paul Joseph Goebbels im Sportpalast X X

Of these five that are included in earlier catalogues, numbers 1–3 are from sessions of the Reichstag (in which Goebbels had sat since 1928), number 7 seems to be a radio speech (given that the recorded location in the catalogues is Senderaum or ‘Studio’) entitled ‘The national character as the foundation of the national culture’, and number 11 is a speech given in the Berlin Sportpalast. The six recordings added into the Nazi-era catalogue are largely from NSDAP party events between June and October 1932 and, although the presence of previously unlisted 1931 programmes in the 1932 catalogue indicates it was not unheard of for recordings to trickle into the archive in the subsequent year, the catalogue itself records these six as ‘Re-recording from gelatine disc, private recording’ (often also noting ‘technically not flawless’ or similar), confirming their origins outside broadcasting. A comparison of the matrix numbers is also potentially revealing as all six begin with the prefix RRG. These prefixes generally indicated the station that originally made the recording (Bln for Berlin, Hmb for Hamburg, Stgt for Stuttgart, etc.) so if these recordings had been made on location by radio technicians, it is likely they would have been catalogued accordingly with a city prefix. The 1932 catalogue in fact includes only two instances of an RRG matrix number (for recording 11 listed here, and for a compilation of music) and has no corresponding section in the index which is divided by prefix, meaning it would not have been possible to look up these recordings in the catalogue if the matrix number were the only identifier available for a given disc.

The retrospective inclusion of recordings featuring high-ranking NSDAP figures in the archive suggests a somewhat reciprocal understanding of archival value. On the one hand, in the National Socialist state a speech given by the Minister for Propaganda would have been a high-profile broadcasting event and it is unsurprising that it was prioritised for preservation. On the other hand, the decision to insert earlier speeches by Goebbels from before the party took power into an existing archive suggests that inclusion was seen to endow the recordings with a greater degree of importance, that elevating a previously private recording of a small event to the level of an archival object simultaneously endowed the event itself with greater national significance, tying the rise of the party more tightly into the national narrative prior to 1933.

The archiving of sound recordings as historical record – quite separate from their possible value to broadcasters – was therefore established in Germany by the mid-1930s and was further entrenched in the proposal of a new Reichsschallarchiv. This institution was conceived as one of several centralised Reich archives (including institutions covering film and photography) overseen by Goebbels’ propaganda ministry but never fully realised. The intention was for this new archive to be eventually entirely separate from broadcasting, but it was initially dependent not only on the RRG’s extensive collection (which would be used as a basis for its own) but also on this institution’s staff to begin the project. While the creation of a physically distinct collection in its own location was delayed by the outbreak of war in 1939, the preliminary work to examine and re-evaluate the entire RRG collection to establish the ‘historical documentary value’ of its holdings and select what ‘politically meaningful materials’ should be included in the curated collection of the new archive was set in motion that same year.27

The task of reorganising the existing RRG archive – alongside selecting, pressing and preserving new recordings, re-pressing old recordings to fill perceived omissions in the catalogue, and protecting this ever-growing collection from bomb damage – became increasingly difficult as the tide of the war turned against Germany and both safe storage space and qualified staff become more and more difficult to acquire.28 As Allied bombardments of German cities increased, archives, libraries and museums across the Reich were instructed to despatch their collections to various gathering points, including a number of mines. Although some institutions had resisted calls from regional NSDAP officials to despatch their collections to such ‘safe’ locations, many thousands of crates were to be discovered in such places by the so-called ‘Monuments Men’ (art historians and others enlisted in the Monuments, Fine Art and Archives [MFA&A] divisions of the US and British armies), often pictured inspecting gilt-framed masterpieces in the dark of a mineshaft.29 When the 35th Infantry Division of the US 9th Army took control of the salt mines in Grasleben on the 12th of April 1945, they discovered not only collections of artwork and historical documents from across Germany and Poland, but also a horde of metal matrices and discs from the RRG and Reichsschallarchiv collections [see Fig. 1].30

Figure 1 

Photographer unknown, US Officers Sheldon Keck and Lamont Moore inspect matrices of the Reichs-Schallarchiv in the salt mine at Grasleben, 6 May 1945. Source: BPK.

Now in the hands of an enemy force (both British and American in this case), the historical record of National Socialist voices preserved within the collection was again re-evaluated. Having previously been assessed for both broadcasting use and historical value in the German national context, the collection was now considered by British and US forces for its immediate political and legal value in supporting a prosecution case against the Nazi leadership. While parts of the story here are unclear in the haze of the early occupation, it appears that the matrices were taken to the Deutsche Grammophon record pressing plant in Hanover and new discs were rapidly pressed from them.31 If anyone was making selection decisions about what to re-press and what to omit, no record of this selection has yet been found and the haste of the process is clearly reflected in the disordered nature of the discs themselves.32 One set of 4,500 Shellac discs – each labelled only with their matrix number – was entrusted to Captain Glanville Brown of the Political Intelligence Department of the Foreign Office (FO), at that time based at Bush House alongside the BBC European Service. Glanville Brown’s report on the collection outlines his team’s efforts to index the discs (involving the combined efforts of some hundred Polish servicemen in a repatriation camp) and the fortuitous provision by the BBC of a copy of the RRG 1929–36 catalogue which enabled them to match the matrix numbers and identify the content of the discs. As Glanville Brown himself noted, without this catalogue and the ability to match the recordings by matrix number, the time it would have taken to accurately catalogue the contents of 4,500 unlabelled records with mis-matched sides would have made the project essentially impossible to accomplish, highlighting the pivotal role played by supporting documentation.33

In response to the suggestion that these records could be of use to the prosecuting team at Nuremberg, Glanville Brown duly assembled a list of all recordings featuring members of the accused that pre-dated 1936 and sent through 36 of the discs requested from it, but he also questioned the value of recordings of public speeches in a war crimes trial. Although other captured German archives (e.g. those relating to the military and administration) were central to the prosecution and there were cases of radio broadcasts being replayed as evidence in post-war courts (including in the trial of Vidkun Quisling in Norway), Glanville Brown understood the Nuremberg case to rely more on previously secret documents, suggesting ‘I doubt whether any of [the Nazi leaders] has ever made, in a public speech, a statement or admission which could be used against him at Nuremberg (…) Nor is this surprising, for even the docile Germans might have objected if the Nazis’ true aims had been stated in public.’34 In his assessment, having previously worked in law, Glanville Brown considered the collection to be of greater value to the BBC than to war crimes prosecutors and this was indeed the discs’ next destination.35 Although they remained officially the property of the FO, the discs were accessible to BBC staff at Bush House for at least a decade after the war and lending records show discs were frequently borrowed for use in programme making throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s.36

The Collection in Britain, 1945-Present

Having indexed and catalogued the collection (introducing an additional level of metadata which will be discussed below), the BBC Recorded Programmes Department made the discs available internally to programme-makers. Between 1947 and 1954, discs from the collection were borrowed for some domestic programming (including shows such as ‘Scrapbook 1937’ which featured multiple clips from a single year) and occasional use by the BBC Polish Service, but the German Service made more frequent use of them. When considering the value attributed to this collection by the BBC, it is important to understand what the post-war role of the German Service itself was perceived to be, and this was closely related to Britain’s position as an occupying power in Germany. A report on the service from October 1946 identifies three aims: to support British policy in Germany; to present British views and an image of the country itself to German listeners; and ‘to assist in the “re-education” of the Germans.’37 ‘While avoiding direct reproach and recrimination,’ the Controller of European Services explained in a 1947 Directive, ‘we should continue to develop in the German people an awareness of their responsibility for the war.’38 Programmes were also developed on events since 1933, both within Germany and without; the series Was wirklich geschah (What really happened) was broadcast from 1945 onwards, presenting the ‘real facts’ and ‘correcting distorted information fostered by the Nazis’, making frequent use of German recordings such as those in this collection.39 The BBC were not the only institution attempting to ‘re-educate’ the public at this time; in the immediate aftermath of the war much work was being done both in Germany and elsewhere to analyse the language and rhetorical techniques of National Socialism, often drawing on sound recordings like those preserved in this collection to educate the public on the regime’s propaganda methods.40 At this stage the collection was once again part of an active broadcasting archive and the recordings were thus being assessed by programme makers on their educational and entertainment value, supporting the examination of a very recent political phenomenon and the implementation of a wider re-education policy.

While in Germany the collection had been viewed in both Weimar and National Socialist eras as part of a German national history, worth preserving as part of a wider historical record, its valuation in a British context was rather narrower. At a 1948 meeting of BBC and FO representatives at Bush House it was agreed that the BBC would retain custody of the discs on the grounds that ‘the BBC German service makes active and constant use of them’ but also because ‘the discs would lose much of their value if they were separated from the BBC’s recordings of war-time speeches by Nazi leaders.’41 The perceived merging of the collection with the BBC’s own recordings is noteworthy for two reasons; firstly, it shows a recurrence of the idea that the value of a sound archive is related to its size; secondly it shows a purely thematic perception of the collection based on the nationality and politics of the recorded speakers, disregarding the origin of the discs themselves and their wider historical context. The content of the collection which most interested those present at the meeting is made clear in the description of the discs as ‘recordings of speeches made by Nazis before the war,’ and they are therefore seen as a logical addition to the BBC’s similar collection of recordings of from the war period.

While BBC producers seemed to view these recordings as a valuable resource for programming to Germany, the reception of such broadcasting among listeners themselves was not as favourable as the BBC may have hoped. Audience research carried out with a listener panel in August 1948 highlighted ‘features which remind listeners of Nazi days’ as being among the least popular programming, with Was wirklich geschah named specifically alongside several others. ‘Yesterday’s voices are repulsive and are of no use,’ complained one panellist, ‘if we are always looking backwards we will never get over this great mountain that lies before us.’42 Confrontation with the recent Nazi past was emotional for German listeners, as one panellist explained the following month: ‘With the exposure of all the atrocities committed on behalf of the people, we have become so sensitive that every word about it feels like sprinkling pepper into an open wound.’43 Without the ability to attract an audience to historical features, recordings such as this collection naturally decline in value to a broadcast organisation and by the mid-1950s the potential value the collection offered to programme makers no longer out-weighed the costs and difficulties of storing and maintaining it.

As programme makers made less frequent use of the collection in the post-war years, its broadcast value decreased but its historical value remained. Citing the desire to ‘lay down the development of broadcasting in Germany in an historically and technically exact way’ and the difficulty posed to this aim by the fact that the RRG archives ‘got lost’ in the Soviet occupation zone at the end of the war, the Hamburg-based broadcaster Nordwestdeutscher Rundfunk (NWDR) had been requesting to make tape copies of the collection since the late 1940s.44 The protracted negotiations on allowing access finally came to a head in the mid-1950s when the BBC asked the Foreign Office for permission to share the recordings. In their response, the FO acknowledged the clear historical value of such recordings to a German broadcaster and raised no objection to copies being made for German archives but laid out some conditions regarding the possibility of the recordings being used by a non-British broadcaster. The FO was clear that ‘if the recordings are being used for radio programmes we should like to feel that our material would not be used in any way which would be likely to cause embarrassment to the Foreign Office’ and requested that the BBC ‘tactfully make this point’ with NWDR.45 While the description of the recordings in question as ‘our material’ might seem surprising, it is also interesting to note an ongoing concern on the British side that use of these recordings outside the British context still had the potential to harm British interests, and that in that instance the preservation of the discs by Britain would be particularly embarrassing. Returning to von Brauchitsch’s idea of the collection as a steward of National Socialist values, it would seem that the British perceived the innate ability of the collection to promote the ideology espoused by many of its creators as subordinate to the power of the user to contextualise it. Having used the collection for several years to discredit the Nazi regime, there was still apparently some concern that, deployed in a different context, the ‘faithful steward’ could yet serve its former master, hence the desire to control the context of its use within Germany. With these conditions in place, two technicians from NWDR spent several months in London making tape copies of the recordings at Bush House, completing their work in the summer of 1955.46 Shortly afterwards, as the BBC continued to struggle for storage space and was using the collection less and less, the discs were passed on to the British Institute of Recorded Sound in 1955 and later incorporated into the British Library’s National Sound Archive where they remain today.47

In its most recent reassessment at the British Library, the collection was again evaluated for its historical interest value, but the material nature of the collection has once more been an important factor driving the decisions around it. The format of the collection on shellac records had a significant influence on BBC assessments of the collection as the storage requirements of the format (e.g. needing to be stored vertically, with temperature, humidity, and dust controls in place) and its sheer bulk (the weight of several thousand discs limits what infrastructure can be used to store them, both in terms of shelving and in terms of the weight bearing capacity of the floor) were measured against its broadcast value. Storage was less of a pressing issue for explicitly archival-focused institutions such as BIRS and the British Library, but other characteristics of the format came into play as the collection aged, such as its fragility. While all ageing sound carriers are threatened by the declining quality of their materials, wartime shellac recordings such as those which make up much of this collection began with the additional disadvantage of being manufactured during a period of wartime shortages and restrictions resulting in lower quality materials being used.48 This fragility had a notable impact on the collection however as it was categorised as ‘at risk’ and therefore prioritised for digitisation funding under the UOSH project. Communication between the British Library and the Deutsches Rundfunkarchiv (German Broadcasting Archive, DRA) has also revealed that the collection is likely to contain recordings no longer preserved in Germany which, once digitised, would be more easily accessible to archivists and researchers. The opportunity to fill gaps in the DRA collection may also be considered an additional motivating factor as the ability to share digital versions of recordings without having to relocate physical collections enables archives to open their collections more widely without jeopardising their objects. This case study therefore supports recent arguments advanced in the burgeoning field of format studies that the format of an archival object has significant consequences on its preservation and perception, but also that formats themselves tell us something about the object and the archive that holds it; the fragile wartime shellac with hastily handwritten labels tells part of the story of the collection’s creation, and the digitisation of the recordings testifies to a commitment by its current host to make them available to be heard by a wider listenership in future.49

It is worth noting again how pivotal documentation and metadata continues to be in the preservation and use of this collection as the digitisation process involves not only the discs themselves but also information from the pre-war printed RRG catalogues, and the card index produced by the BBC while they held the collection. Given that there are cards for which no disc survives in the collection (and vice versa), it is only through combining all this information that it is possible to gain an overview of the collection as a whole, and – if we also incorporate records held at the BBC Written Archives Centre – to trace individual recordings within it. The digitisation process also results in an additional layer of metadata – the digital catalogue – illustrating that as long as an archival object survives, the process of its categorisation and organisation is never final.

To take one example of re-use by the German service, we can begin with a recording of Reichskanzler Dr Hans Luther, speaking about the President and the Reichstag on February 10, 1930. This talk is divided across two discs (matrix numbers RRG 319 and 320) and appears in the 1931 RRG catalogue as item number 105 on page 33. As part of the collection brought over to Britain and held by the Foreign Office at Bush House, the first part of the speech (RRG 319) was included in the new index and card catalogue as disc 3134A. Borrowing records show this disc was borrowed from the disc library by Julius Pereszlenyi (Martin Esslin) of the BBC German Service on April 6, 1947 and returned on April 21 of the same year. Consulting the record of Programmes as Broadcast (PasB) at BBC WAC, we can see the disc was included in Pereszlenyi’s feature programme The Great Dictator, broadcast at 21.15 on May 5, 1947, alongside a number of the BBC’s own recordings of Hitler’s speeches. The disc now resides at the British Library whose online catalogue includes entries for both the disc itself (as a physical item) and the recording (as an audio recording). As RRG sources naturally only include RRG identifiers (RRG 319) and BBC sources include only BBC identifiers (3134A), it would be extremely difficult to match recordings with any certainty between the two with these sources alone. It is only with the original BBC index and now the British Library’s resources that matching is possible.

A contrasting example from a Polish service programme, however, demonstrates some of the difficulties that still remain. On October 3, 1949, J. Nowak of the Polish Service borrowed four discs from the library – discs number 1908, 834, 1444B and 3812B. No matrix numbers or content information are recorded in the BBC borrowing record but consulting the British Library catalogue reveals that 834[A] and 3812B have near consecutive matrix numbers (55996 and 55998) and are both recordings from the surrender of Warsaw Fortress, suggesting they may have been borrowed for a programme on this topic. However, while side B of disc 1908 has matrix number 16001, suggesting it is related to these same recordings, it is labelled only as ‘[Title unknown] – unidentified (speakers, male)’ in the British Library records, and no results at all are returned for 1444B. The BL’s archiving team have confirmed this is because the disc for 1444B is now lost and only the card index entry survives, confirming it as the middle part, matrix number 55997. Searching through the BBC’s PasBs shows that this missing disc was the only one to make it into the programme: 15 seconds of it were included in ‘The History of War on Gramophone Records,’ broadcast at 19.30 on Thursday October 6, 1949. Could it be that its inclusion in the programme is the very reason it does not survive, having suffered some accident during borrowing? We cannot be certain, and this example shows some of the challenges that still remain when attempting to trace the use of specific recordings through time and multiple translocations.


The recordings in this collection have been subject to a number of evaluations and re-evaluations throughout their existence, and the outcome of each has been dictated by the context of the recordings within the holding institution, and the wider context in which the institutions themselves are placed. As part of a German broadcasting archive, the collection began as a resource for programme makers before evolving into a means by which to preserve the ‘Zeitbild’ of Germany in the period as part of an historical archive, considered valuable enough to be protected in mineshafts until it could be incorporated in the Nazi’s envisaged Reichsschallarchiv. In 1945, when it was suggested that they could be used as evidence to support the prosecuting case at Nuremberg, the recordings were assessed for their value as contemporary political or legal documents to testify against the speakers whose voices they preserved. When this potential value was dismissed, they were then integrated into another working broadcast archive – this time at the BBC – and again assessed as to their potential to inform and entertain listeners as part of radio programmes. In contrast to the RRG period, however, these programmes were now intended for listeners in the starkly different context of a divided and occupied Germany requiring (in the view of the British authorities) re-education. Since their broadcast re-use value decreased in the mid-1950s they have largely been considered for their historical interest within a British context and for their value to researchers as they have passed through the British Institute of Recorded Sound and finally entered the British Library.

The prioritisation of this collection for digitisation in the UOSH project, having been in the Library’s collection for decades already, was based in part on a re-evaluation of both its content (it had been established at this point that it included recordings which were not preserved in German archives) and its physical condition, as the age of the discs and the poor quality of the shellac used to press them posed a threat to its continued existence. This marks the second instance in the history of this collection in which the format of the objects themselves has been a key driver in its journey, as the BBC’s earlier willingness to transfer the collection to BIRS was influenced by the demands such disc collections impose on their holders in terms of storage. The newly digitised format will have different requirements and potentially mark the transition of the collection into a new stage of permanent ‘reformatting’, as technology advances.50

At each stage of this collection’s life, within each organisation, its value has at least in part been dependent on the original RRG catalogues. Without these catalogues, it would not have been possible to identify recordings from their matrix number, meaning that all information relating to date of production, identities of speakers, etc. would have to be determined as much as possible by listening to the recordings in full. This – as Glanville Brown pointed out – would have been such an immensely time-consuming job that it could hardly justify the costs such a process would have incurred. The existence of these previous catalogues also helps contemporary German radio historians and archivists to know what is missing from earlier, scattered collections, and provide the identifying information (the matrix number) to match catalogue entries to physical items held in foreign institutions. Without the surviving catalogues, this collection would have offered very little value to any organisation that has held it. However, this case study also supports the idea that the catalogue is not an impartial document but instead demonstrates that the context in which the catalogue is produced can influence how an archival collection is understood. For example, if only the earlier catalogue survived, no information would have been preserved for those recordings marked as ‘gesperrt,’ and there would be no evidence of the post-1933 efforts to bolster the NSDAP’s representation in the archive as extending beyond that which had actually been broadcast on German radio. There are also numerous instances of how National Socialist-era archival protocols have survived long into the post-war era.51 As such, this case study supports the argument made by Eric Ketelaar that the documentation accompanying an archival collection also contains their own ‘tacit narratives’ which must not be overlooked when exploring an archival collection.

From the moment of their creation, archival collections are subject to the context in which they are held and assessed. Their categorisation and organisation – as parts of wider collections and the property of different institutions – is not a discrete step in their ‘lives’ but rather an ongoing, unfinished process that continues to generate further layers of metadata and documentation as the collection is re-contextualised. As such, archival objects cannot be ‘faithful stewards’ of value - neither the ideological values expressed in their content nor any intrinsic archival value attached to their preservation - but are instead subject to the perceptions projected onto them by the entangled network of different stakeholders that surround such displaced archives.