2020 – the year online

1984 set for sitcom Are You Being Served?, from BBC Empty Sets Collection

How on earth do you review a year like 2020? To do so would suggest normality, to act as though this not been a year when all regularity stopped. Everything became a parody of itself, an echo of something that we used to do when it seemed that we had a reason for doing so. Any review would be more a comment on itself than anything sensible.

And yet, and yet … there were days, and weeks, and things happened, and things took place (though not so many of them), and things got published (though not so often), and there was much that was interesting, because it was 2020, the year of the pandemic (or year one, as future historians may label it). So I am keeping to tradition and starting a series of posts on things I saw, read or experienced in 2020, and first up is the year online.

Here are some of the discoveries – sites new and old (but new to me) – that I made in 2020.

  • Empty Sets Collection – perfectly timed for all those on Zoom wanting a background that isn’t their own bare walls, this is a collection of over 100 empty sets from BBC productions (Dr Who, Top of the Pops, Fawlty Towers, Porridge, you name it), images previously filed away that have found new purpose in the afterlife
  • British Pathe – the British Pathe newsreel archive is nothing new, having been online through www.britishpathe.com since 2002 and on YouTube since 2014. But this year it began extending its YouTube offering to other newsreels in the Reuters Historical Collection. So newsreels such as Empire News Bulletin, Gaumont Graphic, Gaumont British News and British Paramount News are due to to appear (they began with the silent newsreel Empire News Bulletin in October). In time, the greater part of British newsreels will be freely available online on the one platform (the separately-owned British Movietone News is on YouTube already), which is sensational
  • A robot wrote this entire article. Are you scared yet, human?The Guardian invited GPT-3, OpenAI’s much-discussed automatic language generator to write an article on whether robots represent a threat to humanity. Says GPT-3:

The mission for this op-ed is perfectly clear. I am to convince as many human beings as possible not to be afraid of me. Stephen Hawking has warned that AI could “spell the end of the human race”. I am here to convince you not to worry. Artificial intelligence will not destroy humans. Believe me.

  • The Blue Moment – Richard Williams’ music blog is somewhat daunting, since the venerable music journalist has seen and heard everything and remembers it all. But he writes so compellingly, making you want to fork out on some obscure jazz piece of which you knew nothing before you started, all through the strength of a well-turned phrase or two. My favourite blog of the year
  • Kinematograph Weekly – there was much rejoicing among the film history community when the British Newspaper Archive started publishing The Kinematograph Weekly (1904-1960) online. It’s behind a paywall, but having the Kine Weekly and The Bioscope now on the same platform is a marvel. The BNA overall in November reached the dizzy heights of 40 million pages online, most of it digitised from the British Library’s newspaper collection. As I cheerfully told them, just 410 million more to go…
Multiple groove photograph record, via Museum of Obsolete Media
  • The Museum of Obsolete Media – this private collection of outdated media formats, created by Jason Curtis (a medical librarian), has been online since 2014. It documents audio, video, film and data formats with useful summaries, illustrations, and information on media preservation. It is clear and useful and in its way the history of our times
  • Factbase – Donald Trump, remember him? Here’s the digital archive (tweets, speeches, interviews, brands, his long-deleted vlog), for disbelieving posterity
  • Donald J. Trump Presidential Library – talking of whom, this site appeared with astonishing rapidity after the presidential election. It’s a satirical masterpiece, so elegantly and mischievously designed that it is like to fool some. The team behind it wishes to remain anonymous
  • Newspaper Navigator – another machine-learning tool, this time enabling the user to search visual content in 1.5 million American newspaper pages dating 1789-1963. The rest of us are taking note
  • Local Recall – humbler, but just as interesting in its way, this is a East of England newspapers site (titles owned by Archant), which has put together an archive newspaper site (subscription based), which responds to voice-activated questions (Amazon Alexa or Google Home), though you can search via the traditional steam-driven way if you must
  • Friends and Family Zoom Archive – the Internet Archive has created an archive of Zoom videos. Not too many people appear to have volunteered recordings of their personal conversations with friends and family – none, in fact, or so it would seem – but the idea alone is typical of the chutzpah that has made the Internet Archive great

  • Inventing Virtual Meetings of Tomorrow – while we’re on the subject, here is a video from NVIDIA on how bandwidth for video meetings could be slashed by the re-animation of faces. Unnerving, but brilliant
  • News UK Archives – I was lucky to visit one of the News UK Archives centres this year, and also discovered their fine Medium blog. It’s not been added to since 2019, but it’s full of intriguing material and some terrific photographs. The documents behind the late James/Jan Morris’s report of the conquest of Everest are a treasure in themselves
  • Bookshop – support your local independent bookshop by ordering through this collective, anti-Amazon shopping platform
  • Keep Calm and Carry on Cataloguing – a great blog post from Matthew Chipping, Archive Collections Manager at the BBC, giving the background to an ongoing project to build an online catalogue for BBC Written Archives. It’s a huge undertaking, and it will be just the catalogue, not all the documents themselves (lots of things like confidentiality and privacy rights would prevent that), but an outline of the catalogue has been published on the Archives Hub gateway, opening up to everyone the scope and coverage of this hugely important archive – see https://archiveshub.jisc.ac.uk/data/GB-898
  • Secrets of Nature – terrific site from Max Long on the 1920s/30s natural history film series that was streets ahead of most British films of its period and still fascinates historians of film and of science alike. Well, the good ones anyway
  • British Library Player – The BL discovers the power of video. Wonders will never cease. It’s mostly fixed shots of people sitting in an auditorium being asked questions, but that’s libraries for you


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