Chapter 19: “It’s Not Really Our Content”: The Moving Image and Media History in the Digital Archive Age

Simon Popple

Media Archives now have the potential to absorb and disseminate ‘original’ historical artefacts through a multitude of new media platforms and to increase the franchise for these materials. They also have the potential to incorporate new levels of interpretive and contextual sources and to offer insights into the ‘mediation’ of the events they represent. This chapter will assess the consequences of digital resources for archives, audiences and media historians through the recent Open Archive case- study project conducted with the BBC.

For the BBC the digital capture and storage of new content represents an instantaneous ‘archive’, but the question of how to engage with their vast pre-digital ‘historical’ resources offer exciting challenges and opportunities. The BBC has an estimated 400,000 TV and Radio programs and an estimated 900,000 hours of content (comprising 600,000 of video/film and 300,000 of audio) dating back to the 1920s. It also has a vast ephemeral archive.

The results of the Open Archive Project which looked at a specific element of the archive relating to the 1984/5 Miners’ Strike suggested that to actively deal with media historical sources a large institutional broadcaster such as the BBC needed to develop models which enabled audience interaction and stimulated engagement with a much broader set of public and institutional communities. Re-constructing and researching key historical events from a finite ‘dead’ set of archival sources could be a thing of the past and the additional voices of those who were present and can offer contesting and contextual commentaries open up new historical methodologies which are profoundly exciting. The role played by digital technologies and their impact on how we as historians, sociologists and communications researchers conduct our own research and stimulate and engage our students is now at a crucial stage and the issues raised by this project might perhaps stimulate debate about the way forward.