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In Their Own Words: British Novelists, from the BBC Archive

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Roly Keating | 12:25 UK time, Wednesday, 18 August 2010

This week we've published the latest of our archive collections, In their own words: British Novelists, a selection of interviews with modern writers drawn from the BBC's archive.

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The collection includes a radio interview with Virginia Woolf from 1937, an astonishingly erudite encounter between Iris Murdoch and Frank Kermode from 1965 and a 2009 interview with Zadie Smith, and offers a remarkable insight into the way writers think and the ways they have been represented by the BBC over the years.

It is the latest in a series of collections that includes stories from survivors of the sinking of the Titanic, the moon landings, British steam trains and the documents behind the creation of Doctor Who.

Some of the archive selections we publish are linked to significant anniversaries, like the loss of the Titanic, but this collection was triggered by the research done for In Their Own Words, the BBC series on writers that is being broadcast this week on BBC Four.

It offers viewers an opportunity to listen to the full versions of the interviews used in the programmes, something that would have been impossible for us to do before the advent of the internet, and shows very clearly how linear programming and non-linear access to material can complement each other, with well-chosen extracts used on air while the full-length originals are made available on the web.

I think it also offers an excellent model for how the BBC can ensure that the archive material we publish reaches its intended audience, with BBC Four curating the raw material that goes into its programmes, offering a context and providing - through the programme itself - an excellent introduction to the material that is available to be explored online.

Putting historically important material online is one of the most significant things that we're offering as we open up the BBC archive, but even that is scratching the surface.

The BBC's record doesn't just include programmes or the raw material that went to make programmes. There are photographs, props, costumes and millions of documents ranging from scripts to contracts to letters from the many people who have worked with the BBC over the years.  Some are historically significant, and we want to curate them and make them available. Others may matter only to one person or one family, but they should still be discoverable.

And of course the BBC archive, rich and wonderful though it is, is only one way of looking at our shared history. We are working closely with other cultural institutions like the British Library, British Museum, Arts Council England and of course the British Film Institute in order to harness emerging digital technologies and ensure that as we all make material available online we do so in ways that work together. 

We want to make sure that a search for 'Kingsley Amis' finds the material from many different archives and collections, not just the interviews on 'In Their Own Words', and we are working with our partners to ensure that we can all discover, access and engage with archive material, important collections and contemporary culture in a digital public space that is open to everyone.

This will make the internet more valuable for every one of us, and may motivate more people to go online as they realise what is out there for them.  We also think that it will create opportunities for commercial development and help to fuel the creative economy, just as the invention of videotape and then DVD created a new market for BBC programmes, one that was not envisaged when television was invented.

If you want to find out more about the BBC Archive, my colleagues Adrian Williams and Richard Wright have been blogging about their work and all three of us have been interviewed for this week's Guardian Technology podcast.

Roly Keating is Director of Archive Content


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