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Wikipedia Archiving Voices So You'll Always Know How Celebs Sound

Actress Emma Thompson is one of the first to have an audio snippet of her voice included in her Wikipedia biography.
Joe Scarnici
Getty Images
Actress Emma Thompson is one of the first to have an audio snippet of her voice included in her Wikipedia biography.

What's in a voice? To the folks at Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, a voice means a lot. They've begun a project to archive the voices of famous people.

Actor Dustin Hoffman, writer John Updike, scientist Jane Goodall and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi are among the audio clips now found in Wikipedia's biographical entries. Formally called Wikipedia's Voice Introduction Project, it aims to collect 10-second sound recordings of anyone with a bio page on Wikipedia. The BBC is helping, by providing a lot of its archival audio through an open license.

Wikipedia expert Andy Mabbett is one of the people helming the project and spoke with NPR's Audie Cornish.

On the project's beginnings

I wrote a blog post suggesting that we get some people to record their voices for Wikipedia, and asked everybody I knew who is the subject of Wikipedia article to provide a short sample where they tell us their name and a little bit about their background so we know what their voices sound like.

As a result of that the BBC heard the project and they asked me if I would get involved in a similar project that they were about to run, where they've open licensed or released with permission to reuse up to 1,000 40-second clips of programs from their archive, because they want to run software against them to do voice recognition, but they realized those clips are also useful for us on Wikipedia to exemplify how people sound, particularly people we can't reach with our recording equipment.

On why audio instead of video

There's nothing wrong with video. We use video on Wikipedia as well but by using audio, it's a very small task of the person recording their voice for us. They can do it in the morning when they are in their dressing gown and curlers. Some people are shy of appearing in front of a camera, but it's also a small file to transmit over the Internet. It's a lot cheaper to download the audio over the video.

On what you learn from hearing someone's voice

It's a very personal thing. If you think about the people in your own life, you know their voice the moment you hear it, as much as or sometimes even more than a photograph ... With a voice, you know instantly. And, I don't know about you personally but if I hear a voice from the dim and distant past from the days of wax cylinder recordings, somebody like the nurse in Florence Nightingale, it's so exciting to have that connection back to them. So we're doing the same for people today.

Who's on your audio recording wish list?

I happen to know there's a Wikipedia article about you [Audie], so I'm looking forward to receiving your recording ... No fear or favor. I'm happy for any subject of a Wikipedia article, whether they sound like a Shakespearean actor or a guy on the street selling a newspaper. We want their voice.

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