Permanently accessible? to whom?

Photo of the Bush House

Bush house: the BBC World Service is leaving its home after 71 years
Photo: Paul Grover via The Telegraph

There has recently been some discussion on the about the BBC selling its production facilities and moving from the Bush House to somewhere else.[ref 1][ref 2][ref 3] The BBC world service has been a major player in radio and oral culture in Great Britain and around the world for 71 years. A lot of history has been reported by the service. And the BBC's records (including its archive) have oral histories of a variety of world events for the last 71 years in a variety of languages (Wikipedia has a brief description of the collections at the BBC.). As the mission and business functions of the BBC continue to evolve it is clear that the tools needed to impact the world for the past 71 years are not the same tools needed for the next 71 years. So I completely understand the kinds of business pressures for optimizing the business model and the operational functions which might have lead to the move. However, one concern of archivist is:

What will happen to the years of oral and audio history embodied in the sound archives of the BBC World Service?

The BBC is a non-profit, nongovernmental, governmentally supported and tax supported (not just tax payer money but also if one owns a TV in the UK then also a tax is levied on the owner to support the BBC) Media Production Organization based in LondonFor U.S. readers this is a bit mind blowing: non-governmental and tax supported with a specific tax on TVs. But this separation between government, services and the corporate sector may be less obvious in UK society..[ref 4] It is my understand is that this puts the BBC in a category of approximately a governmentally financed, private company. This allows the government to tax the citizens for the continued operation of the service and to also allow the organization to operate within the parameters of a company and use common commercial practices to achieve its ends. It should be noted that the BBC World Service items do not go directly to the British Library for archival as do many (if not all) media from other parts of the the BBC.

Since at least 2009 the BBC has had a plan to digitize its archive by 2022.[ref 5]

BBC Archives The BBC Written Archives shelves

BBC Archives: The BBC Archives shelves with 4.5 miles of shelves
Photo: Sam Frost via The Telegraph

The 4.5 miles of shelving at the archive make other archives like SIL International's look small in comparison. But like the BBC, SIL International has been working internationally, and with a variety of languages (in comparison many more than the BBC). SIL International has also worked with minority language people for just about as long as the BBC World Service has been in operation. Also like the BBC's archive, SIL's archive contains a varied amounts of content across many modes (film, audio and written forms). As the Guardian reported in 2009 the BBC archive was considering releasing its content to the public and to the world digitally via the web. It was also contemplating the options of releasing some portions for free and some portions under some commercialization accessibility options. While this sounds great for the general public who would not otherwise have had access to this content, it does raise some concerns.

These concerns are primarily associated with how archives go about accessioning content and the obligations that the archiving institutions have to making the content accessible to the (taxpaying or funding) public.

In May of 2001[ref 6], the BBC put together a campaign in which there was an effort to recover some of their broadcasting content which had been lost.

We’re asking anyone who has recordings of pre-1980 television or radio programmes that might not be held by the BBC to let us know, so that we can have them back and they can be preserved for the enjoyment of generations to come. - BBC Website[ref 7]

The claim was that these losses were due to lax policies in the BBC and what is now presented as a change in policy about archiving content with rights protection and copyrighted material.

Video tape was introduced in the mid-1960s, but was still vastly more expensive than today’s cheap home technology. It wasn’t seen as a permanent store for television programmes. But the tapes could be used again to make other programmes - and many were. Sometimes only samples or extracts of radio programmes were kept. Sometimes programmes were heavily restricted by copyright and rights considerations. Such programmes could not be repeated. They were thought to have no further use and often not kept. But the BBC would now be willing to re-negotiate those rights, or to preserve the programmes for the social history value alone. - BBC Website[ref 8]

Changing management policies and government funding is something that archivists have to deal with. i.e. Vienna Phonogrammarchiv in 2011Some political move was afoot to consolidate or close the archive, putting some of the collection in danger. and Discoteca di Stato in 2012[ref 9][ref 10] ) And while it sounds horrible that an archive might repress or destroy inventory, it is probably not more agonizing to the public than it is to the archivist. In fact it is probably more agonizing the the archivist. This is why the terms under which accessions are made are so very extremely important. It is this point about accessions which I feel is most often overlooked by many people in my acquaintance. In all fairness my acquaintances are probably heavily influenced and restricted to interactions with SIL colleagues and in their dealings with SIL's Language and Culture Archive. It is at the point of accession that the terms of access need to be considered. Unfortunately for many submitters of content to archives this is not even a thought, let alone considerations made by submitters for national laws which affect the holdings housed at archives or university libraries (acting as archives or stewards of collections). Archives are often seen as a place which will hold content indefinitely for some unknown future user. For financially minded administrators archives are sometimes considered as black holes on budgets with no return on "investments". Therefore if an archive can monetize accessibility to content it is seen by administrators of budgets as a good thing. This opinion is generally not held by the paying public, or contributors, although the public will recognize the financial conundrum. Monetizing content in and of itself is not an easy task. It takes the rigor of digital archival practices, a keen business sense, and an intimate understanding of the user experience expectations of the public (and also perhaps an imagination for how the content could be used).

The British Library has an interesting use case for a partnership with a commercial entity. They have partnered with Brightsolid, a digital services and publishing firm out of Dundee, Scotland. Brightsolid is currently a wholly owned subsidiary of D. C. Tomson & Co. and has an impressive set of archive-history-social interest related products and brands. Among them are websites like,, and, all, with one exception are genealogy and public records related products.
What makes the partnership interesting is that these websites act as a gateway to records held in the archiveIt should be noted that not all archives contain public data. It is assumed that BBC Archive Data is public data, but it might not be. In the U.S. there is a strong effort to keep the data from federally funded research open to the public.. For instance, in an article about the collaboration between the British Library and Brightsolid over the British news paper collection, it was made clear that the future gateway to the archive's content will be through a pay wall.

The firm will digitise content from the British Newspaper Library, which it will then make available online via a paid-for website. - BBC News[ref 11]

The newspapers are currently in a store in Colindale, north London, and are used by 30,000 researchers every year.

Use this example:

Bright solid moves into video and photo markets:

Having recently used some of the services... content is valuable and content does rule. Content strategy plus engagement strategy.

It has been rumored that the BBC is to turn over these archived items to a third party for management.

[1] 24 January 2012. BBC News Scotland Business. Online company Brightsolid sees profits grow.
BrightSolid digitizes 40 Million pages of content in News Papers

3 February 2012. BBC News Scotland Business. Family history firm Brightsolid launches in US.

Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother. - 1984 Chapter 24 by George Orwell.[ref 12]


  1. Christopher Middleton. 7:30 am BST 10 Jul 2012. For sale: Bush House, a landmark of BBC World Service history. The Telegraph on-line. [Link] [Accessed: 19 July 2012]
  2. Jonathan Prynn. 11 July 2012. Buy a bit of BBC radio history… or an entire studio. London Evening Standard on-line. [Link] [Accessed: 19 July 2012]
  3. Paul Ridden. 12:41 pm 12 July 2012. Updated: BBC World Service equipment and memorabilia to go under the auctioneer's hammer. gizmag online. [Link] [Accessed: 19 July 2012]
  4. Wikipedia contributors. 19 July 2012. BBC World Service. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 15 Jul. 2012. [Link] [Accessed: 19 Jul. 2012]
  5. Mercedes Bunz. 15.49 GMT 29 October 2009. Will commercial deals help open up BBC archive to the public by 2022?. The Guardian on-line. [Link] [Accessed: 19 July 2012]
  6. Mark Brown. No Date. what are missing episodes?. [Link] [Accessed: 19 July 2012]
  7. BBC Archive. 14 May 2001. BBC Online - Cult - Treasure Hunt - About the Campaign - About the BBC Archive: About Treasure Hunt. BBC Website. [Link] [Accessed: 19 July 2012]
  8. BBC Archive. 14 May 2001. BBC Online - Cult - Treasure Hunt - About the Campaign - About the BBC Archive: Why did material get lost?. BBC Website. [Link] [Accessed: 19 July 2012]
  9. Norman Lebrecht. 15 July 2012. Slipped Disc: Norman Lebrecht on shifting sound worlds. Heritage scandal: Italy shuts down national sound archives. [Link] [Accessed: 19 July 2012]
  10. Beatrice Nencha. 13 July 2012. Nuovo Paesesera: la voce di Roma on-line. Discoteca di Stato verso la scomparsa Addio a 80 anni di memoria sonora. [Link] [Accessed: 19 July 2012]
  11. BBC Website. 19 May 2010 01:13 UK. BBC News. IT firm Brightsolid to digitise historic newspapers. [Link][Accessed: 19 July 2012]
  12. George Orwell. 1949. Nineteen eighty-four. Cutchogue, N.Y.: Buccaneer Books. Available online: [Link] [Accessed: 19 July 2012]


1 24 January 2012. BBC News Scotland Business. Online company Brightsolid sees profits grow.

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