Collecting vinyl might be a notoriously expensive endeavour, but right now hundreds of thousands of records are waiting to be played for free at awe-inspiring listening stations around the world.
These library sound archives have records ranging from oratorial opera vocal tubes created in 1901, to comprehensive catalogues of original Motown pressings and field recordings of Polynesian tribes from the 1950s.
Here are five of the most extensive – and eclectic – record libraries across the globe, with architecture credentials that match their collections.
The British Library Sound Preservation
Location: 96 Euston Rd, Kings Cross, London NW1 2DB, UK
Size: Over 6 million items, including over 1 million discs and 200,000 tapes
Accessibility: Monday–Saturday. Request a free reader pass to gain entry, where over 200,000 items are available without advance notice. Special recordings are available upon request
Highlights: Complete BBC Radio recordings; international wildlife recordings and soundscapes
The British Library Sound Archive, formerly known as the British Institute of Recorded Sound, was founded by Patrick Saul in 1930, after he had a shocking revelation.
According to the British Library’s sound magazine Playback: ‘One afternoon in 1930, a young music-lover went into the London gramophone shop in Cranbourn Street run by Mr Wilfrid Van Wyck and Mr W Rimington and asked for Dohnányi’s Violin Sonata in the arrangement by Lionel Tertis. To his amazement he was told that the record was ‘out of print’; it had been deleted.
‘So he walked on to the British Museum determined to hear the recording at least, even if he couldn’t buy it. But he was told that there were no gramophone records at all at the British Museum. The realisation that such performances could be snuffed out, that they seemed to be disappearing for ever was, Patrick Saul said later, like a child hearing about death for the first time, and he resolved to try and do something to prevent the death.’
And thus, the world’s greatest sound archive was born. Now part of the British Library, whose 170 million items make it the biggest library in the world, its audio wing can be visited at the British Library’s St Pancras location.
NB: Saul’s personal favourite recording in the archive was the mating call of the haddock fish
The Rodgers & Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound at The New York Public Library
Location: 40 Lincoln Center Plaza, New York, NY 10023, USA
Size: Over 700,000 items and 100,000 printed works
Accessibility: 7 days a week
Highlights: Personal listening booths with your own audio technician; an ongoing microfiching index of 600,000 78rpm discs held by major American sound archives; original 1901 Mapleson Cylinders
To access the Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives, located at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, head to the third floor, where a dedicated help desk awaits. Your request will then be sent via computer to a playback technician located in the building’s basement storage area.
Once the selection has been located, it is ‘piped into’ a specially designed, private listening booth, where you can communicate directly with the audio technician via computer. You can also have record jackets and liner notes delivered to the booth during your listening session.
NB: Many of the items require advance notice, best to browse and contact NYPL here if you are looking for something specific
Music Library + Understage
Location: 246 Itaewon-ro, Hannam-dong, Yongsan-gu, Seoul
Size: Over 10,000 records, and 3,000 vinyl-related tomes
Accessibility: Limited public availability, daily availability for Hyundai card owners and their guests
Highlights: Its glass box structure with a main atrium where you can listen to records from the collection, and every issue of Rolling Stone Magazine since the publication began in 1967
Music Library + Understage is a vinyl collection from the 1950s to present, housed in a multi-storey glass cube in Seoul, with a glass facade designed by Samuso Hyojadong. This mesmerising audio mecca was created in 2015, as part of Hyundai’s ‘library project’ across South Korea, following the 2013 opening of Design Library in Gahoe-dong and Travel Library in Cheongdam-dong in 2014.
Though Music Library + Understage is only available on select days to the public, you can gain access by visiting the basement music venue, Understage. Its adjacent Vinyl & Plastic store, which features 4,000+ records, 8,000 CDs and a basement gallery space is accessible to all, year round.
NB: Take a guided virtual tour through this vinyl geo-hub here
Music Section, Stuttgart City Library
Location: Mailänder Platz 1, 70173 Stuttgart, Germany
Size: Over 100,000 items
Highlights: Studiolo – ‘Music in and around Stuttgart’; sound studio with playback stations and music production software
The wing includes a Music for Children section (teach ‘em young), and the Studiolo – a comprehensive audio catalogue of aural life in Stuttgart and its surrounding area.
With architecture and organisation inspired by the ancient Roman pantheon, you can also create your own future masterpiece at personal recording stations using computer software and keyboards.
NB: The funnel shaped skylight makes it a particularly luminescent creative perch on sunny days
The Music Room, Potato Head Hong Kong
Location: 100 Third St, Sai Ying Pun, Hong Kong
Size: Over 8,000 records
Accessibility: Open for special events and private reservations, with full details here
Highlights: JBL Pro Blue series loudspeakers, Macintosh tube pre amps and amplifiers, a custom-made rotary mixer from Japan, vintage Klipschorn speakers
China’s first dedicated vinyl library and listening space puts the country firmly on the audiophile wanderlust map. Located inside multi-purpose arts centre Potato Head designed by Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto, its world-class set-up and interiors look like something out of a Wes Anderson film.
Curated by German DJ and producer Johnny Hiller alongside a selection of renowned dealers, the venue also hosts listening events showcasing everything from classic LPs to obscure Ethiopian jazz 7”s.
NB: Its small capacity means events sell out in advance, so best to book quickly if you know when you’d like to visit.
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