I’ve been having some conversations recently about the value of the BBC Archive.
The Archive is a curious beast. To the likes of you and I, the vast majority of it may as well exist in some private collection. We don’t see it, we don’t touch it, and we sometimes hear snippets about it. There are releases of collections, but these really only scratch the surface of what’s there.
Beyond the logistics of it, any conversation about altering this state of affairs inevitably ends up on the subject of value: what is the BBC Archive worth, and to whom?
The problem with this question is that there isn’t a single thing that we call “value” and measure in some nice neat unit of valueness. Instead, there’s economic value, cultural value, educational value, personal value, and so on. Each of these is different, and only economic value is straightforward to quantify.
It will probably come as no surprise that historically, exploiting the archive has been focussed very much on realising the economic value of the content. It contains material which commercial organisations (programme-makers, more often than not) are willing to pay for, and so is made available to them (for example, via BBC Information & Archives).
In contrast, material in libraries, art galleries and museums is rarely talked about in terms of economic value. To most of us, how much something in these places is worth in monetary terms is just another fact about the item in amongst a great many others. While something’s cultural or educational value is often influenced by scarcity in the same way that its economic value is, the relationship between scarcity and economic value is far stronger than the relationship between scarcity and other kinds of value. Something doesn’t become less a part of our heritage or become scholarly useless because we can produce and distribute copies cheaply (or even freely).
Sometimes, such as in the case of commercial re-use of archive footage, that scarcity is artificially maintained in order to ensure that the archive itself remains financially viable. Unlike with a physical item, where a copy is generally less (economically) valuable than the original, where content is concerned, an copy — even if taking a different physical form — can reduce the scarcity of that content, and so diminishes the ability of the archive to earn enough to pay for itself.
In an ideal world, perhaps, it wouldn’t be necessary to preserve the economic value of archive content, and everything would be collectively archived and freely shared amongst anybody who wanted it, in a fashion not dissimilar to the likes of archive.org and ClearBits. This would, in effect, turn over the archive to the “commons” model where we bear collective responsibility for the archival, rather than being reliant upon (and paying for) a single organisation to do it on our behalf.
It’s a compelling idea: we all take part in creating, maintaining and disseminating the archive. Everything we record from the TV or radio becomes part of it, and it becomes a fundamental part of society’s approach to our creative heritage. But, it’s difficult. And that’s a huge understatement. The BBC — as just one party in all of this — doesn’t own the vast majority of its broadcasts; we can’t even manage to secure the right to format-shift for personal use with impunity, let alone collectively create a distributed creative archive.
I’ve described here two approaches which are essentially at opposite ends of a spectrum from one another: at one end is the largely inaccessible but commercially exploited model, while at the other is the free-for-all collective commons model. The former exploits commercial value, but is largely limited to just that: how can something hold educational or cultural value if it’s not accessible? The latter gives rise to widespread educational and cultural value, but at the expense of the economic value.
And so perhaps there’s an approach to be carved out which sits somewhere between these two. I’m minded of public libraries which have, traditionally, done precisely this. Now, it’s fair to say that the appeal of the public library as a physical entity has dwindled, especially as the Internet has marched ever-closer to ubiquity, but it doesn’t automatically follow that our interest has necessary been diminished to the same extent. In fact, I’d argue the opposite: the Internet lets us organise into like-minded groups with a shared interest in any topic you care to think of, and those topics are as diverse, to say the least.
The library model doesn’t preclude commercial exploitation, but at the same time allows the public broad access to the otherwise-inaccessible material. Of course, the one thing that the falling numbers of people walking through the doors of our public libraries have shown us is that just opening the doors of the BBC Archive to visitors and waiting for people to wander in is unlikely to cut the mustard nowadays, for all sorts of reasons. Instead, this would need to be something Web-based: a place where anybody can dive into the archive and explore what it has to offer.
Undoubtedly, “educational use” would be fairly high up on the list of prime customers for this. People wishing to explore the archive in relation to their studies are those who have the most to gain from such a facility. There’s no real sense in limiting access only to those in schools, colleges and universities. The only difference between students and staff in education and everybody else is that the former tend to be working towards something specific and more-or-less tangible, rather than satisfying curiosity, answering a question which has been bugging them, or just exploring.
In an interview with Jemima Kiss in today’s Guardian, Tony Ageh, Controller of Development for BBC Archive, talks about his vision of a Digital Public Space, which looks to be a successor-in-interest of the BBC Creative Archive Pilot and isn’t a million miles away from the middle ground I’ve described — assuming you, as I have, consider talk of reinventing the Internet to be a matter of changing approaches to the Internet, rather than seeking to persuade vast numbers of people to switch protocol stacks and client applications en masse.
From what I can tell, the Digital Public Space project is more or less as close as you can get to unlocking the cultural and educational value of the archives not just of the BBC, but other public-service-focussed organisations as well, without diminishing the economic worth which keeps them afloat. Making this happen is unlikely to be easiest task in the world by a long chalk, but I am very much looking forward to the day when it happens.