River Deep, Mountain High: archiving the sounds of water

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By Cheryl Tipp, Curator of Natural Sounds, British Library

Tucked away in a corner of north London lives one of the most important natural sound collections in the world. For over 40 years, curators at The British Library have been archiving the sounds of planet Earth, enabling everyone, from researchers to the general public, to engage with this evocative aspect of natural history.

Today, the collection contains over 160,000 recordings of wildlife and environmental sounds, covering all animal groups and representing all biogeographical regions of the world. Though dominated by the voices of more than 8,000 species, the archive also features a range of environmental recordings that focus on the collective sounds of the natural world. From the sultry rainforests of South America [1] to the frozen landscapes of the Arctic Circle, these recordings place emphasis on the broader soundscape and use sound to demonstrate the circadian and annual rhythms of our wild spaces.

In recent years, water has become a favourite point of interest, offering infinite inspiration for field recordists and endless enjoyment for listeners. The British Library’s collection of water recordings, which covers everything from waves and streams to creeks and geysers, continues to grow as more recordists become enchanted by the alluring songs of these watery muses.

In response to this growing appreciation, a curated collection of field recordings, devoted to the many sounds of water, can now be found in the Environment and Nature section of British Library Sounds; a website showcasing some 50,000 unique recordings from the Library’s extensive sound archive. With each example being a unique sonic record of a particular time and place, Water invites the listener to explore the versatile nature of this natural element.From the riverbeds of Northumberland [2] to the mountain streams of Spain, [3] this collection of over 150 recordings is diverse in terms of both subject and location.

The aural opportunities presented when recording and listening to water are endless; moulded by their surroundings, the sounds of our rivers, streams and oceans become the embodiment of their geological and meteorological influences. Is there such a thing as a typical river or a standard stream? Absolutely not. Each one is a unique and flexible entity, sonically complex and full of subtle patterns that deserve to be noticed and appreciated. Don’t believe me? Check out Water and you’ll soon see what I mean.

Header image: Gullfoss, Iceland [4]

Water Sounds Project Website: http://sounds.bl.uk/Environment/Water

Transnational Ecologies Project: http://niche-canada.org/research/transnational-ecologies-project/



Richard Ranft, “Amazon Riverside at Night. Colombia.” W2CDR0000523, 1988. Online.


Richard Beard, “Water – streams.” Wildlife Collection WA 2009/020, 2008. Online.


Nigel Tucker, “Water – streams.” Wildlife Collection WA 2005/48, 1997. Online.


Richard Beard, “Water – waterfall.” Wildlife Collection WA 2010/016, 2009. Online.


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Pete Anderson

Public History Consultant at History Applied
I am an Ottawa-based historical research consultant. My personal research examines the confluence of science, settler colonialism, and landscape change in Canada and my doctoral thesis explored the early history of Ottawa's Central Experimental Farm.

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