Magazine article Journal of Film Preservation

Audiovisual Archives and the Web

Magazine article Journal of Film Preservation

Audiovisual Archives and the Web

Article excerpt

This article is based on a talk I gave in January 2016 that questioned the nature of the audiovisual archive.1 The question is made through a comparison between traditional film archiving and YouTube, and by looking at the emerging form of sound and video collection which is the web archive. Examples are drawn from British audiovisual production and archival policy.

Film archiving has traditionally been a painstaking business. When films were produced on film, the objective was to acquire adequate materials to enable the archivist to reproduce the film as closely as possible to the form in which it was originally made and/or shown, ideally from an original negative. There were many challenges for the film archivist. National film archives did not really get under way until the 1930s, meaning that much of the first 40 years of cinema was destined to be lost. In the United Kingdom, there is no legal deposit legislation in place for film, so film archivists have had to go out to producers, distributors, and collectors to obtain suitable film copies, and not everything has been collected. This has been also a costly business since film stock is expensive and bulky, requiring specialist storage conditions as well as specialist equipment to ensure its long-term survival.

The situation, from a statutory point of view, is a little better for television in the UK, since a national television archive was enshrined in the 1990 Broadcasting Act.2 Videotape is also cheaper than film. The expense of film, combined with the distribution models to cinemas, constrained what could be produced, and consequently what could be archived. Television had a different distribution model, one which allowed it to broadcast content non-stop across multiple channels, but the medium for capturing this - tape - was adequate to the task. Very broadly speaking, our moving image archives were able to meet the challenge of archiving much of what was produced, assuming that they were properly resourced to do so.

Over the past ten years, the picture has changed utterly. What has changed it is YouTube, founded in April 2005, and what it has changed relates to scale, content, description, discovery, and expectations of access.


There are around one million films and television programmes held by the BFI National Archive, the UK's national moving image collection, collected over eight decades.3 By wild contrast, I estimate that there have been 3.5 billion videos uploaded to YouTube since 2005.4 Four hundred hours of video are added to the site every minute. There are some film collections which have not managed to acquire more than 400 hours of content in years. In one year in the UK, there are approximately 700 films given a cinema release, 6,000 physical videos published, and about 600,000 television programmes broadcast (excluding repeats).5 It is not known what proportion of YouTube's possible 3.5 billion items is British in origin, but the number is certain to dwarf that produced by traditional means. Does this render the traditional film archive meaningless, or reductively niche?

Although YouTube has done much in recent years to become a platform for a considerable range of professional material, vast amounts of this online content is what might be termed trivia: ephemeral videos of skateboarding pets of the kind that would never have been acquired by a film archive, nor even conceived of as a type of film production before the YouTube era. But is it trivia? How are we to judge what a moving image should be? Is the understanding of it as an art medium, of the kind best revered in a cinémathèque, now something absurdly narrow? What, intrinsically, is the difference between, say, Citizen Kane and Charlie Bit My Finger?6 Perhaps we should only look at the numbers - unless it is the numbers that are scaring us, and we prefer to cling to old certainties.

When it comes to description, things become problematic. …

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