Criteria for Selection and classification in the BBC Gramophone Library (Derek Lewis)

The BBC Gramophone Library concerns itself with the entire output of the commercial record industry - we exist to serve the needs of all BBC production departments wherever they may be situated, and so it inevitably follows that our holdings must span the entire range of material produced. As a matter of interest it is estimated that some 4,000 records per week are loaned from the central record library and at any given moment we expect to have 16,000 records out on loan (give or take a hundred or two!). This inevitably causes considerable problems with stock control, and although computerisation is imminent, for the present we continue with our manual system. However, this is not intended as a piece about the overall working methods, more specifically how the BBC Gramophone Library deals with the vast morass of material broadly classified as “popular” or, as Leslie Wilson may prefer to call it, “light” music.

In this category we acquire each month approximately 250 “singles”. This is not the entire output of the British record industry by any means considering the amount of material being issued; especially by the small independent companies, and in taking this limited number we are exercising a natural selection policy. Part of the problem arises from finding out just what the smaller companies are releasing. We ensure that we always have the current Top 70 and by using staff “know how” hope to acquire the best of the up and coming groups or soloists as well. A close eye is also kept on what is actually broadcast - for many of the programmes on the BBC “popular” channel, Radio 1, use demonstration or promotion copies - and the library endeavours to see that if such a record is played copies are also acquired for library stock.

Of course this system is not infallible. A future generation of producers may well criticise us for not having spotted a particular record, recognised its merits and got it for the library. But it must be admitted that the present rather haphazard way in which records are marketed, sometimes only available for a few weeks in a small number of copies goes counter to the requirements of the well-run library.

However, with “singles” the library prefers to have examples of current pop trends in Europe, as the Industry still maintains a somewhat insular attitude, and very few non-British language records ever seem to circulate widely in the UK. An obvious example here would be the entrants for the annual Eurovision Song Contest, and every so often the library stocks up on the number one product. Many of these recordings are reflected in a BBC programme presented in conjunction with other European countries called “Pop over Europe”.

The same goes for LPs: in the “popular” category, the total acquired per month - and this covers the single title, not extra stock - is around 450 per month. Many of these are imported albums, either direct from the country of origin or through one of the many import outlets in London, and they will account for the major input of jazz and country and western from the USA as well as a bit of “new wave” groups from Europe.


Having acquired the records, the next process contends with the matter of making them available to programme production staff. Some know exactly what they want, as they work in a particular field of entertainment and are thoroughly versed in the latest trends, groups and forthcoming recordings. Others, working in a more generalised form of programming will need help, suggestions and guidance.

In both circumstances, the onus is thrown upon the effectiveness of the cataloguing system. Take the case of the “specialist” producer who is working in the field of the big bands of the 30s and 40s. He wants a version of Charlie Barnet’s “Skyliner” recorded many times, but he wants one of Barnet’s own recordings.

The catalogue must tell him that besides having the original August 1944 “78” both in its original format and subsequent LP transfers, the library can also offer him a choice of the following: a “live” performance in Hollywood, also in 1944, and others recorded at various locations in March 1951, August 1958, a broadcast in December 1945 and so on. He knows that he wants a performance featuring Barney Kessel on guitar, and the catalogue must also inform him which of the recordings in stock feature Kessel. He can then make his choice. Mind you, there may well be yet another version, circulating on some small label in the US which has never been acquired – but, with luck, he will locate his record and ensure that the right version is broadcast. There are several ways in which this can be done: by identifying the recording date, location, band line-up and also the record release date. Some may claim that this information is more discographical than cataloguing, but from the point of view of the record library it is essential to have this information, which is after all fairly basic, when it is available, aligned to, and part and parcel of the main title entry.

It has been noticed that, particularly in the field of “popular” music, the title entry is the one to which most users go first. This may well confound some of the principles of AACR2 - but it is the main entry for the bulk of information in the Gramophone Record Library. Additional entries are made in sections devoted to performers, composers, lyric-writers, musical instruments, giving either the immediate information required to identify the record filing number, or at least a cross-reference to the main entry.

Another type of user is the producer who (nearly always at short notice) wants a snatch of music to supplement other items in a programme. This is usually in the field of news and current affairs, documentary features or drama productions, when the subject matter or content of the recorded item is of primary interest. A very useful aid here is the subject classification section devised by the library especially to meet this need. It has been developing over the last ten years or so, and the format is fluid. Attempts are being made to impose a precise and final form upon it, but every so often the headings and groupings have to be revised.

It cannot be a static scheme. At present the entire catalogue exists in the form of typed cards stored in filing cabinets, pending computerisation. When this computerisation being the library will be forced to commit the systems to a definite and rigid format.

The classification ranges widely and aims to cater for the myriad requests received. To take a few examples: recordings of songs about food and drink are grouped together as are recordings about sport. This latter section is subdivided into different sporting activities and then again into groups such as songs celebrating the sport, team songs, and recordings by individual players - it is amazing how many star footballers have made at least one record as a budding pop star - and, incidentally, in another category, the same applies to politicians. There are groups of songs about animals, industrial and work songs, and another section uneasily called - because no one could think of anything better – “Social Comment”. Here there are songs about many topics - race-relations, environmental problems, economics, old age, and inevitably the old favourites, drugs, sex and alcohol, either for or against.

Another section relates music to a particular period, and another attempts to deal with the various styles of popular music that have acquired labels - such as collections of recordings or significant performers associated with types like “Heavy Metal”. Sometimes it is hard to be too precise about some of these genres as so much overlapping takes place. It is probably easier to re-make such sections with the benefit of hindsight and some reclassification will be necessary. Film soundtrack recordings are listed under the year the film was released, and entries for the aforementioned Eurovision Song Contest year by year, noting the winning entry and the runners-up.

The composer section lists, in addition to a composer’s output indicated alphabetically and annotated, a useful sub-section devoted to collections on LP of that composer’s work. Under Lennon and McCartney one can find not only Cathy Berberian’s unique realisation of the Beatles’ songs, but a variety of other arrangements played by everything from the Boston Pops under Arthur Fiedler, by way of the Grenadier Guards Band to a Moog Synthesizer. The Beatles themselves also rate an entry in the Subject Classification catalogue as several songs have been written about them.

The library has on hand a number of reference books, especially those covering performers recording careers. The Gramophone Library is fortunate in being able to call upon the Popular Music Library for other reference material when required rather than keep permanent duplicates. The two libraries try to keep a balance and not duplicate information unnecessarily in the catalogues if it is readily available in printed form near at hand. However, in the case of recording data for instance, it is much better and also time-saving to have the information incorporated in the catalogue.

The form of cataloguing now pursued has been developed specifically to meet the needs of a broadcasting station, but its gestation has been a little haphazard. It has rough edges, is by no means complete, and is certainly selective. It is not proposed as a standard format for dealing with all such recorded material, but it has elements that could usefully serve as a basis for the kind of classification most sound recordings libraries, as well as many others, are finding more necessary. One has to be wary of “classification” becoming an end in itself, and certainly different libraries, having different needs, would be advised to consider very carefully their own needs for such cataloguing. However, it should not be too difficult to agree at least a basic level of desirable headings – and perhaps this might form a useful subject for a working party at some future session.

Derek Lewis is the Gramophone Librarian of the BBC.
This paper was first given at the IASA conference in Washington DC 1983. It formed part of the session given by the IAML/IASA Committee on Music and Sound Archives.