« Previous | Main | Next »

Intimations of the Archive

Post categories:

Richard Wright Richard Wright | 11:50 UK time, Wednesday, 18 August 2010

UPDATE:  We're adding links to this post through the week as other archive related posts and material comes online.  Extra links wil go at the foot of the post. (Ant Miller, BBC R&D Blog Host)

We all know the BBC archive is important. Rolling out statistics about breadth and depth of coverage, kilometres of shelves, number of millions of items - is predictably impressive. Listing all the titles of landmark productions is a similarly worthy exercise - worthy, but still an exercise.

There's a Dr Who line: "I was a Time Lord.  Now I am a traveller."  There are lords in the BBC, though really they are more sorcerer or magician: they make programmes. They wield the 'very expensive paintbox' and make the magic that absorbs us - as it educates, informs and entertains.

And then it disappears.  Poof!  Magic down the airwaves for just minutes - then gone.  All the planning, budget, technology, artistry and magic - just gone.  All that remains is whatever makes its way into the archive.

The archive is the physical reality, the substance, of everything the BBC broadcasts.  We may not be Media Lords who make the programmes, but we can all be Travellers - who travel the archive.

A few evenings ago I was listening to Radio 7 - an archive channel, launched (as was Six Music) on the content that was brought back into use through archive digitisation.  There was Humphrey Littleton, with Willie Rushton on fine form - and I was ageless, back with them, back with myself back with them.  It's an 'out of time' rather than an 'out of body' experience - but equally abnormal and surprising.

The archive is enchanted: Sleeping Beauty awakes, a hundred years disappear.  In the archive, experiencing the archive, we are enchanted; timeless.

Broadcasting is technological magic: produced with considerable expense and difficulty, by many kinds of specialist.  The enchantment of the archive also relies on technology: to build, maintain and provide access.  Just now maintenance is tricky, as analogue formats become outdated and the content - the precious sounds and images - has to be caught again like Peter Pan's shadow, and sewn up in a new, digital, technology.  The trickery of maintaining an archive needs its own kind of sorcerer - experts on old formats, breathing their art into old equipment for the last time - for them and the equipment.  It all costs money, and another kind of sorcery managed to extract ten years of funding from the BBC, back in 1999 - and now needs to cast that spell again also.

However thanks to technology, some developed in BBC R&D (INGEX) and some developed in partnership between R&D and other European broadcast archives (the Preservation Factory), the budget needed to digitise the second half of the archive will be reduced 50% (in money and time).  That's an engineers magic, done with spreadsheets, circuits and (increasingly) software.

The next and biggest magic of all will be an 'appearing trick': projects that will give the license fee payers even more access to archive content than they already get on our collections site.  This is the domain of Roly Keating, the BBC's director of archive content - and Tony Ageh, his Controller, Archive Technology (because in the BBC it's not seemly to use the title Magician).  Roly gives an overview of these projects in a post on the About the BBC blog

The numbers game - the size of the archive and how we preserve it, and transform it from old to new technology, has been covered in another BBC blog by Adrian Williams, whom I've worked with since 1994.  He's now the BBC Head of Preservation for the archive, and he's written a BBC Internet Blog.

The BBC does a lot to reach out and try to connect with people.  Some connections that may surprise you are:
•    Facebook - we have an archive page which alerts audiences to new collections: BBC Archive Collections
•    YouTube - the BBC has its own Channel.
•   We are always interested in your feedback and on Twitter we ask people to use #BBCArchive as a hashtag (as a controlled-vocabulary indexing term, in library speak; librarians invented that particular kind of magic - indexing - a couple hundred years ago)

But all the above is talk about the archive:  if you want an intimation of what archive access actually means - and an intimation of your own immortality, just look here:  www.bbc.co.uk/archive

Finally, if you want to hear more from Roly, Adrian and myself we have been interviewed for the Guardian Technology podcast which is dedicated to the BBC Archive this week.

As part of this weeks celebration of the BBC archive the team have produced a short tour of the archive facilities which has been posted on the BBC Youtube channel.  

We're cross posting from this blog to all the archives activity across the BBC's blogs and web sites and external channels this week, so take a look at the posts from Roly Keating, Controller of Archive Development and Adrian Williams, the Digitisation Group Manager, around the BBC blogs network today.

Thursday's addition to our archive blog activity is from Helen Papadopoulos Project Manager of BBC Genome who talks through the project that will bring the broadcast history of the BBC to life


  • Comment number 1.

    I'm very much looking forward to the point where /programmes can blur the divide between 'current' and 'archived' content -- I know the distinction is very real to an extent, but if I didn't know the detail, it would seem entirely artificial (especially as PIPS has an archive-of-sorts of the metadata of 'recent' programmes).

    The ideal here is, of course, that I can browse /programmes and retrieve information across the whole span of known BBC broadcasting. If a programme is current, or is part of a publicly-available collection, then I can watch it there-and-then.

    (as far as I understand it, this is all a matter of "when", rather than "if", so consider these as words of encouragement!)

    I am curious as to how the rights issues work with archived content, and how it'll work for content being broadcast now in 20, 30, 50 years' time? Is there a standard 'reversion' clause which ensures that things can become part of the BBC Archive, and that it'll be accessible as part of that (including the awkward things, like music and appearance rights)?

  • Comment number 2.

    (and by "watch" I did of course mean "watch or listen to" -- some of the best the BBC has ever produced has been radio!)

  • Comment number 3.

    Hi Mo, I'd recommend the Guardian Podcast, and especially Roly Keating's interview in that, for an outline of the approach to rights issues that we think is necessary to underpin a long term future archive.

  • Comment number 4.

    Thanks Ant, I'll have a listen to the podcast over the weekend.


More from this blog...

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.