Sonic Memories

Audio Letters in Times of Migration and Mobility – SONIME

Project lead:

Mag. Eva Hallama (Österreichische Mediathek)

Tel. (+43 1) 5973669-7125, E-Mail
Katrin Abromeit, MA (Phonogrammarchiv)

Tel. (+43 1) 4277 – 29612, E-Mail


Project funding by:

Sonic Memories

The interdisciplinary research project "Sonic Memories - Audio Letters in Times of Migration and Mobility" collects and restores audio letters that are currently hidden in public archives or are privately owned and were sent by post from the beginning of sound recording to the establishment of digital formats. The focus is on the cultural techniques of the self-recorded acoustic letter in the 20th century as well as on material-technical and conservation-restoration aspects of special audio media such as direct-cut records, magnetic self-recording discs, or dictation cassettes.

Project Duration:

November 2021 – October 2025

Heritage Science Austria Call

The project SONIME has been selected for funding within the ÖAW's "Heritage Science Austria" programm among eight other research projects. It is carried out at the Österreichische Mediathek and the Phonogrammarchiv.

About the Project

‘The sound makes the music, even in a letter’ stated an article on audio letters in the Phonographic Journal in 1901. Since the turn of the 20th century, it has been possible to send spoken letters over long distances, even if the gramophone, the technical device for voice recording, was only affordable for a few, and the wax cylinder was not flat enough for inexpensive mailing by post. New inventions for recording the voice in the course of the 20th century produced new formats that could be sent more easily, such as the recording wire or self-cut foils, or were easier to use and their recording devices were cheaper, like the magnetic tape and the compact cassette.

While the early audio letters were often sent by hobby phonographers or travellers from the middle class, the cassette formats were also used by people in precarious migration contexts.

The historical sound recordings – some of which are threatened by decay – on wax cylinders, recording wire, direct-cut records, magnetic tape and various cassette formats, are being restored, scientifically examined, digitised and permanently saved at the Phonogrammarchiv and the Österreichische Mediathek.

The collection will be built in a way that includes the donors’ knowledge, with whom interviews will be conducted about the meaning of the audio letters as ‘sonic memories’. In participatory workshops, archiving parameters – and thus forms of their inscription in the collective memory – are worked out.


The research project employs an interdisciplinary perspective that combines an extensive repertoire of methods from conservation and restoration research, cultural and media history. Thus, it will be possible to analyse the material and its cultural significance in full consideration of its complex (historical) interwovenness. Material and cultural analysis complement each other and include the acoustic characteristics of the recordings, especially with regard to the affective moment of the spoken voice. The conducted material analyses provide comprehensive data for conservation research and lay the foundation for restoration measures.

Project aims:

The scientific research to be conducted into these previously largely neglected historical voice messages has a twofold aim: a) to fill a gap in the (media) historical engagement with these sources and b) to reconstruct the largely unknown history of the cultural technology of acoustic letters in the context of migration and mobility.

At the end of the project, the collection, the associated metadata and all research results generated in the project will be available as open access data for further research, stimulating and enabling future multi-disciplinary and interdisciplinary research in this area.

Scientific Advisoy Board

Cultural and Media Studies

Prof. Thomas Y. Levin – Princeton University
Prof. Thomas Macho – IFK International Research Center for Cultural Studies Vienna
Prof. Jens Schröter – University of Bonn

Migration History

Prof. Nadia Al-Bagdadi – Central European University
Dr. Vida Bakondy – Austrian Academy of Sciences
Prof. Dirk Rupnow – University of Innsbruck

Conservation Research

Dr. Federica Bressan – Stony Brook University
Dr. Elena Gómez Sánchez  – Deutsches Bergbaumuseum Bochum
Simon Kunz – Deutsches Bergbaumuseum Bochum
Stephan Puille – HTW Berlin