Preserving the past by conjuring nostalgia

Next year will be my 15th year of living in Johannesburg.

When I arrived fresh-faced in 2004, I was completely intimidated by this mega-city. I had accepted a job offer and relocated from Durban to Johannesburg in less than a week, my car packed with my meagre possessions.

Johannesburg was daunting. Not only was it massive, but traffic was a nightmare.

My best friend in those early days was a Johannesburg street map book, without which I may never have found my way anywhere. 

I became an expert at sliding across multiple pages, plotting my course from point A to point B, learning to navigate while on the road, without killing myself or others.

It was through that map book that I learnt to traverse the city. I learnt about its ebbs and flows, its bottlenecks and lesser-known backroads.

Many of the lessons I learnt during that time are still deeply engrained in my mind, there every time I get behind the wheel of my car.

I still have the street map book, but I haven’t used it in years. Google Maps now shows me multiple routes to get from point A to point B at the click of a button. 

The well-thumbed map is a thing of the past. Technology has simply made it irrelevant.

What triggered the memory of my trusty old map book was the discovery of Conserve the Sound, an online museum for vanishing and endangered sounds, which was created in 2013. 

The award-winning project was funded by the Film- und Medienstiftung NRW in Germany, and it was created and is maintained by creative house Chunderksen.

One of the sounds you’ll find on this unique platform is the unfolding of one of those large fold-up city maps. The recording was made using a city map of Dortmund in Germany. 

As I listened to the pages crackle, I could picture the scene as the person struggled with getting the map open. 

It made me chuckle. 

The fold-out map: a practical headache and sound from the past we can reminisce over through technological innovation.

Browsing through Conserve the Sound really is a treat, as the website offers you a whole treasure trove of forgotten sounds – like the unfolding map – to explore. 

You will find the sound of an old manual kitchen beater, a dial telephone, a 56k-modem, an 8mm-film projector, a Sony Walkman or a 1990s Opel Astra.

You can sample a range of 1930s cameras, 1950s typewriters or listen to what it sounded like to load a cartridge into a vintage 1980s Nintendo entertainment system.

To accompany this archive are interviews that provide insights into the world of disappearing sounds. 

These got me thinking about sounds that may need to be documented and added to this online museum in the not-too-distant future.

Like the sound of a coal-fired power station, for example. 

Another one of my favourite recordings on Conserve the Sound was that of a 1930s library stamp. From a young age, my mother regularly took me to the library – an act I am eternally grateful for. 

Those trips helped to instil in me a love for words, reading and books – a passion which stays with me today. The sound of the library stamp became an official pronouncement; the book in question was mine to devour for a few weeks. 

The stamp was the gateway to that unparalleled joy.

This memory, triggered by the sound recording on Conserve the Sound, made me think about the feeling of standing in a library. It was quite something, as a young child, to find yourself in a building full of books – more books than one person could ever read in a lifetime. 

Perhaps the amount of time I spend browsing in second-hand bookstores today has something to do with that feeling of awe and magic.

However, we have to face the fact that physical books are an outdated technology. It’s not hard to imagine a world where these libraries of the past become online entities.

As our lives shift ever more quickly into the digital realm, I wonder how long it will be until the idea of a library has shifted so much that the opportunity to stand in a room full of physical books will be an experience only afforded the most elite of children.

Conserve the Sound may be able to preserve the sound of a 1930s library stamp, but it can’t capture that feeling of being surrounded by books.

This article originally appeared in the 7 June edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here or subscribe to our newsletter here.