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Archiving the Army with BBC Four

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It seems like only last week that I was writing here about what a busy year this is proving to be for archives. Well, here we are again - this time to celebrate the launch of BBC Four's first online Collection of classic television programmes from the archive. It's the beginning for us of a whole new way of thinking about the relationship between the immediacy and ephemerality of broadcast TV and the permanent, connected medium of the web.

If you've seen the trails on air you'll probably know that Army: A Very British Institution is the latest of BBC Four's distinctive thematic seasons: in this case a mix of brand new documentaries and series such as Sandhurst that in different ways explore the institutional culture of the Army. This isn't the raw frontline fighting captured so dramatically in BBC Three's Our War and other recent films, but rather the fascinating, intangible realm of regimental tradition and values that gives the British Army a character unlike any other in the world.

It's the sheer richness of this social history that made Richard Klein and his team choose this season to launch what will be an ever-expanding series of thematic online collections from the archive. Of course, from its very beginnings as a channel BBC Four has always been a gateway to the archive. The Timeshift strand - now into its tenth year - has long specialised in plundering the archives to tell resonant tales of social change. And the big seasons - from The Sixties to The North - have often scheduled archive gems alongside the new commissions.

What's different now is that the channel has an official remit to extend its knowledge and passion for the archive into the internet age. As I reported here in February, the channel's Service Licence has been amended to allow it to curate and publish archive content permanently online, alongside and complementing its broadcast output. It means that from now on BBC Four's major seasons - the products of many months or even years of planning and preparation - will have the chance to leave a lasting legacy on the web for future audiences to explore and enjoy.

In the case of Army: A Very British Institution that means a chance to bring back to modern viewers some remarkable programme content, much of it observational documentary footage which hasn't seen the light of day since first broadcast. There's far more there than we could ever fit into a linear schedule - but for anyone with a personal or family interest in the regimental life of the Army over the past fifty years this is a unique resource. See Mark Urban's introduction for a taste of what's included, and what it tells us about how army life has changed over many decades.

Of course, the BBC archive is vast, and for every programme we make available there will be hundreds that we haven't. One of the factors we have to take into consideration when we decide what to release is what rights we own - not every programme belongs to the BBC in its entirety for all time. Often a decision will have been taken at the time to acquire rights to broadcast a programme for a more limited time, at a lower cost to the licence fee payer. In that spirit, focusing on the wealth of programmes we do own offers the best value.

If putting this together has meant a new way of working for the programming teams on the channel, it's also been a new challenge for the Online teams, who - as Ralph Rivera posted here a couple of months ago - are on a journey to transform our online offer from a series of disparate websites into 'one service' on the web that connects all the BBC's services, content and programmes into an increasingly seamless online experience. In this case, that's meant learning from the best of our original Archive pages - whose content will over time migrate to the new format - and blending it seamlessly with the functionality audiences are familiar with from iPlayer.

This is just one of the ways in which we're determined to make it easier for all of us to access and enjoy the riches of archive content. It's not just about making BBC Online itself more coherent and easier to use. It's also about us getting much better at linking up to relevant content and archive material elsewhere on the web - more on that in a few weeks' time.

Roly Keating is Director of Archive Content at the BBC

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