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Safeguarding the BBC's archive

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Adrian Williams | 11:45 UK time, Wednesday, 18 August 2010


The BBC's legacy Radio and Television programme collections have resided at the Windmill Road Archive in Brentford, West London, for 42 years. There are almost five million items held on a wide variety formats including film, dating back to 1936, videotape, first introduced into the BBC in the late sixties and numerous audio tape and disc including a small collection of wax cylinders which date back to the early 1900s.

Despite the age of some of the components it is very much a working collection with over one million items loaned, to production departments for repeat or re-use within new programmes, every year.

The collection is made up of 650,000 film components, 2.4 million videotapes and 2 million Radio sound items. 75% of the holdings reside in London with the rest deposited around the BBC's Nations and Regions in smaller local collections.

This year will see us begin the re-location from our 42 year old Windmill Road home to a newly built Archive Centre three miles up the road in Perivale. The move will take 7 months to complete but once there our programmes will live in especially tailored storage and environmental conditions designed to prolong the lifespan and integrity of the material. You will be able to read more about Windmill Road and our move to Perivale tomorrow courtesy of a post from my colleague Peter Skinner Head of Archive Operations Information & Archive over on the About the BBC Blog.

Archive activity is not solely around storing, conserving and delivering back to production and play-out, it is also about preserving and digitising for future use and persisted retention. We started a digitisation work programme for the Radio Archive ten years back and have so far migrated (or as we say 'ingested') over 280,000 Radio items to digital media.

The Television programmes presented us with a much tougher nut to crack but with the help of BBC Research & Development we came up with innovative and cost efficient factory processes which have so far digitised 50,000 news items held on Hi Band U-Matic (a news gathering video format used throughout the 1980s) and over 60,000 from the first digital broadcast format used by the BBC, D3. There are over 340,000 tapes in the D3 collection and it was used throughout 1990s up to 2005 as the analogue terrestrial delivery format. It is no longer mechanically supported by the manufacturer so 100,000 tapes were selected for digitisation.

Technology development has to have a bi-directional approach when dealing with legacy archive collections. Looking back at old formats and technologies to inform processes for extracting as much, or more information from the original carriers and looking forwards at ways of future proofing, storing efficiently and releasing back to digital production over the network.

You can hear more about the BBC Archive in this week's Guardian Tech Podcast after their recent visit to Windmill Road.

Finally, we are always interested in your feedback so if you are Tweeting about us please use the #BBCArchive hashtag so we can join in. You can also leave a comment below.

Adrian Williams is BBC Digitisation Group Manager.

  • The image is itself from the BBC Archive. The caption info reads: "Access All Archives - Information and Archives at Windmill Road (02/08/1999 BBC) Members of staff at Windmill Road hold up various articles from their archives. I&A can dub material onto various formats such as D3 tapes (Digital), One inch and two inch film stock, and Beta cassettes. They also provide recordings on CDs (Compact Discs). I&A have recently organised Access All Archives demonstrations so that customers can see what services are available and the formats which can be supplied."
  • Watch a video tour of the BBC Windmill Road archive.
  • Read Richard Wright's post Intimations of the Archive on the R&D blog
  • Read Roly Keating's post In Their Own Words: British Novelists, from the BBC Archive on the About the BBC blog


  • Comment number 1.

    I was shocked to hear the present archive was situated at the end of heathrows runway. It does not seem to be a very safe place to put an archive.

    The other thing that concerns me is that you seem to be keeping the archive in one location. Even I keep 2 terabytes of backup at my son's house just in case mine burns down. Do you keep backups in more than one place?

  • Comment number 2.

    How far have you got in letting the public Download Radio and Television from your Archives.I have the paper given out in 16. Nov.2009 by Greg Dyke who said the BBC has the Biggest Radio and Television Library in the World this will soon be free to everyone.Speaking from Edinburgh Festival.Digital Revolution and the Broadband has made this very easy to be able to Download to everyone from our Archives for free.we will be delighted to bring back some of your favourites.and memory.of the past.This was Nine Months ago .have you anything we can now Download from the Radio.Say entertainment in the War Years which i can well remember and after.With the Adventures of PC 49.Meet the Huggets with jack Warner.Family Favourites .Billy Cotton Band Show.There are so many of good Shows . I cant wait to see your list .Please reply when you can .thank you.I KNOW AMERICA HAS BEEN DOING THIS FOR SOME TIME BUT THEY DON'T HAVE MANY BBC PROGRAMS.Which we are all waiting for.you cant think what memories they will all bring back.

  • Comment number 3.

    @ bob dunford
    You were handed yuor poverbial in this forum https://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/mbpointsofview/F1951566?thread=7696814 repeating your missrememberings or worse will not make them so.

    Greg Dyke made that Edinburg speach in 2003 and he was gone from the BBC in January 2004.

  • Comment number 4.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 5.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.


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