Saturday, 6 February 2016

Unseen Treasures

All research is a quest for knowledge, and as such begins with a question. We seek information driven by our curiosity; hunt out those dark areas where the known ends and the unknown begins. Then we attack them. We throw every conceivable “how”, “where”, “why”, “when” and “what if” at them in order that may give up their secrets and elucidate the dark areas of our perception. The beginnings are usually easy and plentiful, but then we begin to struggle as our gains become smaller and harder won. Consequently, we go further, try harder and become more inventive with our queries and where we search for answers. Along the way there are people and organisations that both help and hinder our progress. There are the libraries, archives and various publications that often dispense valuable particles of information and then there are other libraries, archives and custodians such as universities who for various reasons such as potential copyright infringement refuse entry to many avid researchers of a non-academic status making their exhibits closely guarded secrets for the exclusive privilege for a select few. For the few who offer a wealth of information (such as, the National Archives and the British Library) for the enrichment of anybody who cares to seek it out, there is an even greater number of academic institutions and archives that withhold potential treasures from those that would enjoy them the most, and even commercial projects, while remaining criminally underfunded. Indeed, they could allow access and charge a fee, yet they don’t. Copyright is often a binding issue but clearly something needs to change. Education for whatever reason is something that most would agree should be encouraged across all classes and benefits our society.

As fans of Doctor Who and other vintage television we all know the story behind episodes that are not currently held in the BBC archives, but will history repeat itself:

“At the moment, everything is recorded and everything is kept for a minimum of five years. But we do exercise a selection policy on that.  We keep what you would expect us to keep, so all the drama is kept, all the entertainment is kept, all the very high value, expensive programmes to make. We keep our news; we keep all the current affairs. The areas where we tend to be more selective would be, for example, in a long-running quiz show, where it's really important to have examples of that, but we wouldn't necessarily keep them all forever. Because when we're talking about keeping something here, we're saying we're going to keep it forever and that's a big overhead to have.”– Adam Lee, BBC Archive

Archiving is an expensive business, few would deny that but television is becoming cheaper and more ubiquitous and plentiful. Has TV’s cultural significance been in decline as a consequence:

"Music videos and other content such as presentation are equally valid. The rightful place for all this is in a National Television Archive. Who are we to judge what the future deems important or not? The current system of haphazardness though means that valuable content could be lost and worthless content could be kept because current systems are increasingly being driven by commercial - and not cultural - systems of selection and preservation. Modern digital technology means that everything can be kept easily - and yet less material is archived now than in 1980." – Chris Perry, Kaleidoscope

Also, in January 2015, the British Library launched a campaign to raise forty million pounds in order to digitise the nation’s sound archive totalling more than six million items before degradation and lack of playback technology becomes an insurmountable problem. This includes formats such as wax cylinders, lacquer discs, cassette players, reel-to-reel tapes and minidiscs. Contained within the archive is the voice of Florence Nightingale, full recordings of theatre productions going back 40 years, including the opening night of Hamlet in the Old Vic, starring Peter O'Toole and directed by Laurence Olivier. As well as recordings of local accents and dialects used to monitor the evolution of the English language and sounds of rare or extinct wildlife: All unique and invaluable to many.

So, lack of funding is one issue but what about negligent copyright holders? 

Both links are about negligent copyright holders and I think are good reasons to have a national television archive. There are some obvious drawbacks as to the cost of maintaining such an archive as well as deciding what should be kept. Also, copyright law can be an obstacle when it comes to storing multiple copies; although, the emergence of digital storage eases problem it also provides a whole new fresh set of problems:

The problem is just limited to visual media either:

“Vint Cerf, a ‘father of the internet’, says he is worried that all the images and documents we have been saving on computers will eventually be lost.
Currently a Google vice-president, he believes this could occur as hardware and software become obsolete.He fears that future generations will have little or no record of the 21st Century as we enter what he describes as a ‘digital Dark Age’.”:

Everything changes and nothing stays the same. The very nature of the universe is impermanent. We are on a rock moving through space around the sun on the arm of a galaxy that is spinning in a constantly growing universe. Change is a given but should lose be so easily accepted? Then again what is the point keeping a lot of this material if so few get to see it?

June 2016: