The Library as a Site of Sound

Where is sound located in the library? There are sounds in the library but what about in the collection – where is the sound? When considering how to find sonic materials in the library, the method that probably comes to mind is to search for audio-visual recordings. At Concordia, you would then find these recordings in the Media Collection on the 3rd floor of the Webster Library, or as a disc to request at the Vanier Library, or a recording to hear in Special Collections (Vanier Library), or as a sound file to stream through the catalogue system. In fact, if searching specifically for an audio-visual recordings, the catalogue will show you on a map exactly where to find it:

That red marker is where you will find the sound. 

In the above example, the call number will take you to a cassette tape called Modern Canadian Poets: a recorded archive and, when you put that cassette into a tape player, you will hear the sound you were searching for: the voice of poet Anne Marriott. 

But what about the books? Are they sonic objects? Here in this post, I want to consider books as unexpected sonic objects in the library, particularly when the book you have requested comes with an audio recording. In this case, the book is the primary object that you are seeking in the library and the fact that it comes with an accompanying CD may be a pleasant surprise. That has happened to me a number times. Most recently, I was searching for Sonic Agency by Brandon Labelle and noticed one of his previous publications: Site of Sound: of Architecture and the Ear, edited by Brandon LaBelle and Steve Roben (Errant Bodies Press, 1999). LaBelle and Roben have since published a second volume, Site of Sound, volume 2: of Architecture and the Ear (Errant Bodies Press, 2011), and both volumes come with accompanying audio discs, as do other publications of LaBelle’s with Errant Bodies Press.

Holding the book is a sensory experience. The cover is artfully designed and smooth, and the CD at the back is neatly tucked inside (and suits the dimensions of the book as square). I turn the pages of this copy carefully since there are a couple pages that are almost falling out of the book’s binding. It so happens that those pages are ones that depict notation, and I imagine readers opening the book wide at those pages to study the notation. I, too, study the notation in order to understand what is shaping the site/sight of sound.

Although it is impossible to know how many times the CD has been listened to, the book itself feels well-worn. In one section there are a couple pages stuck together and I don’t try to separate them since the binding feels so fragile. The book’s pages have been touched many times by readers of sound. 

Readers of sound – yes, reading this book is an exercise in listening. 

Finally, after what has already felt like listening, I press play on the CD.

The book explores how sound-artists understand their work as connected to and shaped by the world: “Through Site of Sound it is our intention to explore how sound leads us to an understanding of our very location. And how listening as a practice, and as a perceptual state, determines the parameters of this understanding” (“Introduction,” 1). 

The influence of site on our perceptual state is demonstrated by all of the written pieces, but particularly by Hildergard Westerkamp’s, in which she imagines the reader reading the written words as a meeting place for reader and writer – and for both to be listeners: “I imagine the reader looking at this page. All ear.” 

Westerkamp’s piece is a useful case study to work with for this book because it is a guide for a soundwalk along with being a critical commentary on sound: “Did you hear the sounds of this place this time in your life? This place on these pages in your place of reading? Put aside another hour on another day and go for a walk in your neighbourhood. Do nothing but listen” (25). 

While reading Westerkamp’s piece in Site of Sound, it is impossible to read without being aware of the location of my reading, and to be aware of how my location is meeting the location – the site – of the listening that produced her writing on the page.

That meeting is examined through this book, as each sound artist explores the meeting place of sound and the place that produced this sound, whether that place be architectural in a physical space or mapped in notation. 

The accompanying CD does not feature tracks by all contributors to the book, but it does feature one by Westerkamp. That track, “Sensitive Chaos,” is not a performance of the written piece but rather is its own work of sound art. (In 1999, when this book was published, this CD was the medium through which one could listen, but, now, there is a link to it, though that link only plays an extract from it.) 

Listening to this book, as part of my larger experiment in listening to the library, is not only about simply playing the CD. After closing the book and returning the CD to its plastic holder, I’m struck by how the CD – the object that is the material container of sound – is only one component of this sonic experience. While the CD holds sound within it at the back of the book, the tactile pages and the words are where this book conveys the feeling of, at once, sound and silence. 


Have you ever borrowed a book from the library and discovered that it contained an audio disc? What is your favourite book that feels like an experience of listening? Share your comments below.

Dr. Katherine McLeod is the 2020-2021 Researcher-in-Residence at the Concordia University Library. She has published on archives, performance, and Canadian poetry and, most recently, she has co-edited the collection CanLit Across Media: Unarchiving the Literary Event (with Jason Camlot, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019). She is an affiliated researcher with SpokenWeb and she produces the monthly audio content for ShortCuts as part of The SpokenWeb Podcast feed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *