Changing channels

Bill Thompson speaking at the FIAT/IFTA conference, British Library
Bill Thompson speaking at the FIAT/IFTA conference, British Library

I spent a fascinating, exhausting and illuminating two days last weekend attending the conference of the Federation of International Television Archives (FIAT/IFTA), which was held at the British Library. FIAT/IFTA is a representative body for those archives, commercial and public sector, that care for the world’s television heritage (its film equivalent is FIAF, the international federation of film archives).

The full conference ran four days, the first day at the BBC, the remainder at the BL, but I had to miss the last day unfortunately. An outsider might imagine that when television archivists gather together in one place they talk about nostalgic TV shows and the challenges of obsolete formats. But television archiving is going digital, and that means that the language is changing. Now it is all about metadata, file formats, ontologies, the semantic web, workflows, user-generated content and other such preoccupations never forseen by the mind of Baird. It says a lot where TV archives now are is that a session on archives in developing world countries was thinly attended because a parallel session on metadata and semantic searching was packed to the rafters.

The conference had special signficance for me because it served as focus for much of the work I’ve been trying to do as moving image curator at the British Library. Rather than being a curator in the usual sense of building up a collection in a particular area, much of what I do is about establishing relationships with other institutions to link up what we have with what their moving image (and sound) holdings. One of the key things about going digital is that the traditional barriers established by the analogue world are falling away – barriers of ownership, copyright, provenance, even meaning. We are building new kinds of structures, where no one can be said to own because everyone shares. Two of those key relationships for the BL are with the BBC and the British Film Institute, and the three of us were co-partners in organising the conference, along with FOCAL International and FIAT itself.

These very points about changing boundaries were made by Roly Keating, the new head of the British Library, significantly having joined us from the BBC, where he was Director of Archive Content, setting in train plans for reimagining what archives are, where their position is within such an institution, and what you can do with them. His welcoming speech to the conference talked of a “continuum of content” between the BBC, the BL and the BFI, which adroitly sums up in three words what some of us have been working hard towards achieving. Of course it’s not just about audiovisual content, and Keating stressed that such convergence was only part of a bigger picture, but it’s vital to have moving images a part of that picture.

BBC Pilot Service
BBC Pilot Service

So it was that he was able to announce the piloting of two new moving image services at the British Library from 1 October. One, Broadcast News, is a television and radio news service, presenting news programmes from seventeen channels (BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Al-Jazeera, Russia Today, China’s CCTV News, NHK World and others) which we have been recording since May 2010. The other is the BBC Pilot Service, an experimental fusion of BBC catalogue data (2.2M records) and playable programmes (190,000) which we’ll be running as a trial for six months. Owing to the need to respect copyright, both are only accessible in the Library’s Reading Rooms (the very name of which shows you what I feel I’m up against sometimes). We’ll want to widen access to such archives one day, but one step at a time.

It was a heady start to the conference therefore, but much else to discover and take in. Bill Thompson, head of partnership development at the aforementioned BBC Archive Development, spoke about the importance of the Digital Public Space (a virtual environment where we could discover the archival riches of partner institutions). For Thompson the BBC was not a programme maker but rather an archive that happened to make programmes, and it was how it would help engineer solutions for making more available to more people that was most important. He declared that what we are doing is adapting how we think, communicate and interact in the digital world is as importance as inventing writing. We are finding new ways of expressing ourselves.

With big ideas such as those, the prosaic necessities of managing TV archives seemed … well, prosaic. But big structures can’t be build without nuts and bolts, and we learned a lot about copyright changes, fingerprinting and ID numbers for audiovisual media, advances in subtitle search and speech-to-text technologies, managing large volumes of user-generated data from events such as the Japanese tsunami of 2011, European portal projects such as Europeana and EU Screen, a memorandum of understanding between the French AV archive INA (an institution, like the BBC, thinking boldly beyond its core business to its core mission) and the Library of Congress which sounds like a model example of cultural diplomacy in action, amateur films, cloud computing, web archiving, the ethics and aesthetics of digital restoration, asset management, and – of course – ontologies.

There was a strong sense of reaching out beyond the boundaries of television, as the sessions on amateur film and web archiving indicate, while much of the talk about digital processes and workflows could apply to any medium in digital form. Indeed the boundaries are collapsing, and you wonder which institutions – and which representative organisations – which still be around in ten years time, when the physical world in which they were founded no longer has any relevance to the researcher inhabiting the digital world.

Interesting times.



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