Travelling in time with the BBC archive

Monday 5 September 2011, 18:01

Roly Keating Roly Keating Director of Archive Content and Executive Editor of BBC Online

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Melvyn Bragg, presenter of BBC2's The Reel History of Britain.

2011 is turning out to be an important year for archives - and not just the BBC's. Earlier in the year I wrote here about the change in some our service licences that will allow more and more selections from the BBC's programme library to be published freely and permanently on the web. Radio 4 listeners are already enjoying the benefits: if you haven't checked out the addictive archive of Desert Island Discs please go there now (though do come back). And later this month BBC Four will be launching the first of its own online collections from the TV archive - more on that soon.

Big things have been happening behind the scenes too. Last month, as John Linwood explained here, we opened the BBC's new state-of-the-art archive store at Perivale, which will house and protect the core of our archive for many years to come. Meanwhile the British Film Institute unveiled its remarkable new building in Gaydon in Warwickshire - a high-tech wonder on the site of a former nuclear bunker which will hold more than 450,000 cans of film from the BFI's collection, including highly flammable and unstable nitrate.

These things aren't happening in isolation. When we set out our archive vision two years ago we were determined to work as closely as possible with other great public archives, such as the BFI. The Screen Heritage UK programme that has funded Gaydon and other UK initiatives over the last few years is underpinned by many of the same ideals that have shaped our own archive strategy. In both cases it's not just about preservation or even digitisation, vital as they are. It's about working together across the whole sector to set common standards for search and discoverability. And it's also about finding new ways to make archives of all kinds more visible, accessible and enjoyable for audiences.

That's where projects like Reel History of Britain are so timely. Starting tonight and then every weeknight at 6.30, this is a new 20-part series presented by Melvyn Bragg and commissioned by Liam Keelen for BBC Two Daytime. The idea is so simple it's a surprise no-one's done it quite this way before: assemble a rich library of material from different regions on specific themes, and take it round the country in a mobile cinema to show it to the people who have the closest connection to it. From the fishing industry in Great Yarmouth to the clubs of Soho, what emerges is an informal and frequently touching social history of the UK.

The whole project has been produced in partnership with the BFI and with the support of many other national and regional film archives, and is a great example of how digital media is making it easier than ever for public organisations to share assets and make connections. In this case, for instance, our website for the series will link directly to the BFI's, where you'll be able to view the original, full-length versions of many of the films featured in the series. And we'll be using the red button to show a selection of the full-length titles from the BFI directly after the main transmission - so if you see a glimpe of something fascinating in the show chances are you'll have the chance to explore it in more detail afterwards.

At its best - carefully selected, fully restored, put in the right context - archive footage can be the closest any of us will get to time travel. Suddenly, with a shock of recognition, a world we thought was lost opens up in front of our eyes. That's a sensation Reel History of Britain offers episode after episode: we hope you enjoy it.

Roly Keating is Director of Archive Content at the BBC

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