Today’s ephemera, tomorrow’s history

I spent some time today having a phone conversation with a man who used to work for a major zoom lens manufacturing company. He’s one of the few people from the company to still be alive, and he had some very useful memories and suggestions for further research.

The less positive, but entirely expected, news was that very little documentation from the company survives. Not because it was destroyed in a fire, or stolen, or left to rot in a damp archive, but because it was all thrown away when the company went out of business. I guess the thinking was: who would ever want to read the company’s internal communications, reports, invoices, purchase orders, letters, etc?

Coincidentally, this fortnight’s Private Eye (#1258) includes the juxtaposition that I’ve scanned and included with this post. Amid the clamour to reduce the BBC’s spending it looks like the BBC’s website will have its wings clipped and serious harm may also be done to some of the Corporation’s projects to make larger swathes of its archive – not only programme content but also metadata.

Several years ago the BBC made its Infax catalogue available online as an experiment. Infax was a detailed database of tens of thousands of BBC programmes, radio and television, listing transmission dates and times and in some cases, shotlistings. There’s a helpful description here. The experiment ended, and the catalogue disappeared. It still hasn’t returned. If the current director general’s views are taken into account, it probably never will.

What these stories have in common is a lack of foresight. In the case of the zoom lens manufacturer, one that is entirely understandable. How could they have foreseen that someone would one day be researching their company’s history and their place in the history of early American television and postwar Hollywood cinema?

The BBC’s timidity in failing to strengthen and maintaining its web prescence is quite another thing. What the Corporation is building with its websites is a detailed social record which will stand as an invaluable resource for future researchers in numerous fields. A record not just of the BBC’s output but also of the ways in which programmes and stations were marketed.

Hopefully the BBC remains a good custodian of its records and even if websites are to be taken offline, they will be retained for future researchers. But we can never be sure (see the heartbreaking destruction of ‘wiped’ programmes as recently as the 1970s). Why not spend a little extra to turn current and archived programming into tomorrow’s research resource? And why not make sure that the resource is accessible as cheaply as possible, to as many people as possible: eg, free, and online.

Today’s ephemera is tomorrow’s historical breakthrough, and while we can’t do anything about the destruction of past archives, we can help to make sure that broadcasters such as the BBC – and, while we’re at it, minor production companies and technology manufacturers – are better custodians of their own records. Funding cuts at the BBC make that a far less likely outcome.

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