Who Do You Think You Archive?

A good package on Radio 4’s Broadcasting House on Sunday 3rd January** on a venture to explore the content of the BBC archive on air via listeners’ suggestions.  (See what they did with the title?)

Broadcasting House invites you to take part in an experiment. Using suggestions from you, the listener, we are going to explore the BBC’s vast archive. We have three categories to choose from: archive relating to you or your family, archive that might help further a particular field of academic research or, finally, a specific topic or area of interest.

We will take a selection to the BBC’s Archive department. Of course, some material will no longer exist and we cannot solve all individual requests, but we are confident we will unearth material of great interest. We might also put some of it on the radio. Good luck.

Introducing the project, the BBC’s director of Archive Development Tony Ageh commented that “most interesting” would be “the written documents – things most people have never seen”.   The presenter of BH, Paddy O’Connell, visited the BBC’s Written Archives Centre and in discussion with Jacquie Kavanagh, the BBC’s Written Archivist, found it “staggering to find a room..containing 4.5 miles of shelving.  This work [of compiling the archives] will never be completed”. 

Tony Ageh went on “The task of opening the archive is immense – beyond the resources of the BBC… it recorded daily life every single day unlike other galleries and museums…the BBC documented and captured ordinary people.”

I’m immensely proud of the BBC and in awe of the volume, complexity (physical & intellectual) and scope of its (our!) holdings – see the BBC Archive website.  And yet I can’t help questioning to what extent the BBC has really recorded daily/ordinary life.  It’s certainly part of my daily life and that of many people I know but I don’t think my own daily experience is recorded in/on/by it particularly (yes, even in The Archers).  I also think it’s a shame that the head of archive development limited the scope of his comparisons to “other galleries and museums”.  Having worked closely with museum colleagues I would say that archives are distinctly different from galleries and museums – we may cherry-pick pretty/extra-ordinary/quirky/treasured etc things to exhibit in various ways but largely, in most repositories the holdings are available in their entirety to anyone who wants to see them.  Including all the ugly, dirty, ordinary, boring and apparently inconsequential records that do record to some extent aspects of the daily life of those who create and use them.  Perhaps Ageh felt that listeners were more likely to have some idea as to what museums and galleries do? – all the more reason to talk more about archives, not less.

One final thought.  I think the project will be a great one to help uncover some of the riches of the archive – particularly the written documents which Tony rightly says are the things that most people have never seen (or even dreamed about).  Could this kind of audience interaction be thought of as radio 2.0? – and what kind of web element will there be? (I know there are really difficult IPR issues with broadcasts which are likely to have a bearing on this). 

It’ll be interesting to see how this project develops over the next few months.

**Until Saturday 9th January 2010 UK-based readers can find the programme on iPlayer.  Broadcasting House is also available as a podcast.   The package is about the 30 minute mark and lasts about 10 minutes.

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