Charlie McCann

Charlie McCann

Last updated on 2 August 2018

Charlie McCann is Archive Manager for BBC Scotland

Here at the cultural and current affairs coalface of BBC Scotland’s archives we’re getting used to a new position under the corporation’s Scottish commissioning wing and taking the opportunity to shift our gaze a little and do some more work to focus on the fruit of all our data preservation labours: our collections’ content. To be perfectly honest, it feels a little as if we’ve been neglecting “the content” of late, focussing so much as we do on “the data”- cleaning it, giving it a machine-readable makeover, digitising it into new formats and storage, figuring out new ways of sending it zooming around the globe at fantastical speeds and even building it a digital library to live in- generally working terribly hard to take very good care of all those zeros and ones. All of this has doubtlessly created new methods and means of security, stability and accessibility, but it has also raised a great many new questions and challenges for archivists. For example, has the tumultuous environment of the tech-driven approach to archiving caused us to lose something of our metaphysical understanding of our collections and in turn let our users and stakeholders down?

Digital technologies are arguably the most potent force for change within broadcasting and programme making. Encompassing everything from the way programmes are recorded, through how they are delivered and captured to how they are catalogued, archived and stored. Given the opportunity granted by technological development to potentially automate away much of the drudgery of file wrangling and transfer as well as aid in the addition of technical and legacy system metadata both to digitised and born digital assets, audio visual archives have never had a better opportunity use our human resource more effectively to encourage and enable deeper engagement between our users and our collections and share more of our unique collections with the public.

We’re currently scoping more curatorial roles for archivists at BBC Scotland which would, in part, act as a counterpoint to the potential tendancy of software tools to algorithmically recreate bias and/ or an overemphasis of the importance of “computational thought” duing the automated generation of descriptive metadata for what is after all a hugely broad and varied collection of art, storytelling and human experience. At the very least I hope it will place a small, vigorously waving figure in the peripheral vision of any creeping technological myopia. We are hoping to create a new focus for this role which would allow us to enrich the data, so to speak. It is often said that the archive can be imagined as a network in which people are a part, if this is so aren’t they are also to be found in the data we’re working to preserve? I would argue that to some extent they are hidden there, in footage of people dancing and singing, politicking and misbehaving, humorously musing on the problematic impacts of gentrification or smugly gloating about “fishy” natures of independence referendum losers Salmond and Sturgeon.  I’m not sure how effective Amazon’s “smug gloating” or “bittersweet irony” detection software is progressing, but I’d hazard a guess it’ll be a while before it gets past 60% accuracy and longer still before it can understand a Scottish accent. We’re also bringing into consideration the scale of our collections and the effects of providing more digitised, macro-appraised, automatically catalogued material to users. BBC Scotland’s archive established digital workflows over a decade ago and we’re now beginning to focus more on digitising our legacy material including at risk video formats, our remaining 16mm film holdings and un-accessioned news material. With mass digitisation projects running alongside our day to day capture and acquisition work there is a chance that without effective curation, the scale of the archive will have a negative impact on user experience.  

For example, we’ve just taken receipt of 3TB of BBC Radio Scotland and BBC Radio Nan Gaidhlig digitised from single copy master CDs covering everything from 3hr news programmes, live music sessions and performances, comedy shows and dramas. Some 12,000 programmes all told. To make such a mass digitisation work at all- that is to make the programmes findable and reusable in any way, it was decided to apply minimal metadata and data standards which would allow for bulk import into our MAM system, then determine a scale of value as to where to focus our resource when it came to enriching and cataloguing the content. This value can only really be determined by skilled archivists at this point, factoring in reuse value in line with current commissioning values, rights issues and the availability/ suitability of pre-existent data from our legacy databases. This material will in some cases be suitable for straight repeat, in others it will be researched and considered and woven into curated themed collections focussing on people, places, events and anniversaries.

The assets in our collections do not become static upon entering our digital libraries, and one of the greatest benefits technology grants us is the ability to engage with; reappraise; collate; connect; and amend the archive with relative ease. We must, however, commit to and resource this work. In a creative environment such as broadcasting- often at its best when dealing with the joyfully non-empirical – a skilled archivist can uncover and surface gold from the most unlikely of places.

Even from my lowly position – ruining my posture at my hot-desk, feet bumping against boxes of production-donated cassettes of radio content waiting their transformative moment in the bright light of digitisation – I can see the technological disruption of the archival professions will continue unabated and that this change brings with it specific challenges, opportunities and indeed risks to archives operating within institutions for which archiving is not a primary function.

I feel that embracing innovations in technology with a view to using the best of what they offer while maintaining a healthy, professional scepticism towards those offering nothing less than salvation through reducing our collections to vast clouds of zeros and ones, offers us the most exciting opportunity to fulfil our essential function – preserving, maintaining and creating access to BBC Scotland’s archive to programme makers and hopefully, in the future, beyond. 

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