Accessing collections and catalogues

The two major obstacles to opening up our national collections of film, television and sound materials have been the cost of distribution and the availability of rights.

Digital media is enabling the major archives to tackle the first obstacle, and to prioritise new forms of collaboration to overcome the second. At the workshops held early in 2012 we heard from two key executives who are working to open up our key collections.

Paula Le Dieu

Paula Le Dieu is the former Director of Digital for the BFI. She sees a ten-year challenge to introduce “meaningful and ubiquitous” digital access. But a vitally important initial step is to open the information – the data – about the collection. The BFI website offers for the first time the opportunity to dive into the BFI’s store of thousands of items of information about its film collection.

Of the BFI’s vast collections, only a tiny proportion is wholly owned by the BFI – and therefore available to exploit without requiring further permission. No more than half of this has been digitised, and some has been used in recent collaborations with broadcasting. A further important challenge for the BFI is to develop a policy on creative expression, on how archive content can be creatively reused.

The BFI has begun the process of rolling out access to its catalogue through an online collections information database (CID).

To search the BFI’s collections, and to request films for viewing, visit the BFI Reuben Library at BFI Southbank. The library also has access to Redux, the BBC system which stores Freeview channel programmes (see below).

Bill Thompson

Bill Thompson is the Head of Partnerships for Archive Development at the BBC. Broadcasting, he points out, has simply been one of the means by which the BBC has fulfilled its charter obligations. In the age of the web new engineering opportunities are available. One of the results is that the BBC’s archive has become an asset for the organisation – one with huge potential public value. The value lies not just with the programme itself, but with the many features it both contains and is surrounded by. (“The least interesting thing you can do with a TV programme is to watch it.”)

The BBC’s archive is a collection of British culture over 90 years, often the creations of some its brightest minds. The BBC wants to open it up both for specific groups such as artists and for others such as entrepreneurs. It wants to open it to those who can experiment and thereby create new value. Each item in the archive is likely to have value to someone; the key is to make it findable, and shareable with others.

A public space is where we all spend a lot of time, and Mark Thompson has identified the BBC as a contributor to a digital public space. This is not just a BBC idea; it is being developed in partnership with many public bodies including Arts Council England, the BFI, the British Library, The National Archives, the Open University, the Royal Opera House and the National Maritime Museum. “Imagine,” says Bill Thompson, “that much of the UK’s publicly-held cultural and heritage media assets and data could be found in a unified online space…”

BBC technology initiatives:

  • BBC Redux is an R&D project which records the Freeview multiplex output. It has been in development for the last 5 years.
  • BBC Snippets is a service currently being trialled. It uses programme transcripts and time-codes to enable any clip to be searched and identified.
  • BBC Fabric is the internal digital management initiative which enables a fully digitised production process from programme-making to archiving, and accessible from any BBC desktop.

To find and view BBC archive programmes you will need to make a specific request, or work through a BBC partner organisation. BBC Radio programmes can be accessed through the National Sound Library at the British Library.

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