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The Value of Everything

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Richard Wright Richard Wright | 10:00 UK time, Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Why was BBD R&D hosting the British Library and the British Film Institute for a meeting on 10 June?  Aside from the fact that we share a first name, what is our common ground?

Not everyone may know:
a) that the BBC charter defines an obligation to maintain an archive and provide public access;
b) that public access to BBC TV output is provided by the BFI, and access to BBC radio content is provided by the BL Sound Archive.

BFI and BL Sound Archive do far more: the BFI collects a lot of other television besides the BBC, and is the only archive collection (the only historical record) for many commercial TV companies that have come and gone.  The BL Sound Archive has enormous depth in music collections of all categories, but also has speech recordings from an equally wide range of sources -- from field ethnography (around the world) to recordings of live poetry events (around the UK).

Archives and libraries have a long history, and a well-developed and proven technology for dealing with items on shelves.  IT people think they invented search-and-retrieval systems, but libraries have been working for 200 years on classification technology.  Starting in the 1970's, libraries converted to digital technology:  the BBC card catalogue (for TV holdings) went electronic in 1978.  But content remained on shelves throughout the 1970's, 80's and even 90's -- and only now are audiovisual archives getting to the point where "files on mass-storage" can be said to be even beginning to take over from content on shelves.

The process of conversion to files began in the 1980's with electronic documents, and audiovisual archives have been collecting digital content (CD, DVD, DAT, digital videotape format) since about the same time.  But audiovisual archives have been 'going digital' (to CD, DVD etc) as a separate stage from 'going to files'.  Now digital content on physical carriers like DVD, DAT and digital videotape is becoming obsolete, and the conversion to files is moving from a trickle to a flood.

How do archives convert their practices so they can handle files with the same levels (or even higher levels) of security and integrity -- and service -- that they historically provided for shelf-based content?  This is an issue that has had a large amount of development since the mid-1990's, under the name of digital library technology.  Recent developments include formal trusted digital repositories -- and the considerable effort around digital preservation.

The British Library is a world-class institution in the digital library and digital preservation field.  The British Film Institute has a range of innovations in access (from online collections to the several UK mediatheques), all based on digital technology.  And the BBC has been one of the world leaders in audiovisual digitisation and preservation, and access (a major R&D contribution is Redux)  -- and with the PrestoPRIME project the BBC is now trying to link audiovisual requirements to digital library and digital preservation technology.

About 40 delegates from the BL , BFI and BBC -- and Rufus Pollock of the Open Knowledge Foundation -- came together to work out, jointly, the future for preserving and accessing file-based BBC content.

The meeting ended on an expansive note, with Tony Ageh, BBC's Controller for Archive Development -- outlining the possibility for UK public service and public sector institutions to work in collaboration to create an entirely new Public Space, within which content and assets produced or aquired using public funding may be discoveredwithout compromising existing legal and commercial concerns. We have the size, the value and the mission to change the fundamental nature of public access. More to come!


Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Hi Richard,
    This is interesting. It may be useful to put the challenge into perspective by giving rough estimates of the volume of archival information (probably beyond terabytes) and explaining the danger of obsolete media. Gives computer scientists something to think about, and perhaps this will be a good discussion topic in the online tech community?

  • Comment number 2.

    Digital Divide - the BBC has been working on digitisation for approaching 20 years, and working in partnership with other audiovisual archive around the world for the last ten years. So there's now so much information in answer to your comment, that I'm embarrassed not to have a short, sweet summary. The UNESCO estimate of audiovisual content -- in archives! -- worldwide is 200 million hours. I know that's a good number, because they took my estimate for Europe and doubled it. My number comes from detailed work over serveral years, where we (with partners) identifed 30 million hours of specific content, in several hundred European collections.

    About 10 million hours has been digitised, and I estimate that between 40 and 70% of the 100 million hours (in Europe) will never be digitised, and so eventually will be lost. [see [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]p4]

    Lots more information here: http://wiki.prestospace.org/
    and here: http://digitalpreservation.ssl.co.uk/

  • Comment number 3.

    Hard to publish serious technical information when I can't give a URL that points to a document! However, for anyone who does want to know the details of the predicted loss of 40 to 70% of the 100 million hours of shelf-based audiovisual content, this legal URL http://www.prestospace.org/project/public.en.html gets to a set of documents, and the document in question is "Annual Report on Preservation Issues for European Audiovisual Collections (D22.4)" and the stats start on p4.

 

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