An academic star in waiting takes the first screen test

January 9, 1998

Archives of more than a century of moving pictures for teaching and research may soon be available via broadband networks, Murray Weston reports

There is increasing interest in extending viewer access for teaching and research to the moving picture content accumulated in archives and libraries during the past 100 years. This year, the British Universities Film & Video Council, the British Film Institute and the Joint Information Systems Committee of the higher education funding bodies will be testing a joint proof-of-concept pilot for the network delivery of moving pictures for higher education and research.

The project, which will experiment with methods of delivery and access across a distributed network, is a pilot to determine the implications and viability of scaling up to a full service.

The privileged position of printed text in scholarship has led to the neglect of audiovisual media. Printed works enjoy the benefit of statutory deposit in the five copyright libraries. Access to those works is made possible through inter-library loans and other arrangements. Underpinning reader access is an excellent catalogue/database - the British National Bibliography. These facilities are available free of charge at the point of access. It is also possible for researchers to photocopy extracts.

In contrast, audiovisual works do not yet enjoy the benefit of legal deposit. There is no unified catalogue of film, television and video material produced in the United Kingdom and there are patchy arrangements for the voluntary deposit of archive material. Those repositories which do hold material and provide viewer access often make charges which are well beyond the means of academic researchers. It is rare for audiovisual archives to allow copies or extracts to be taken for further study. Where this does occur the charges can be high.

The three partner organisations each have particular interests in extending access to moving pictures through the development of a network service. The British Universities Film and Video Council, which holds information on specialist film and television sources, works to promote the use of film and related media in teaching and scholarship. It runs an off-air recording back-up service, under a special letter of agreement with the Educational Recording Agency, to provide copies of broadcast television programmes to universities up to two months after transmission. It holds databases relating to the content of UK film and television archives, and maintains records of specialist non-fiction film and video material which has not been widely distributed. This includes recordings made by industrial interests, research institutes and universities in the UK and abroad.

The British Film Institute has responsibility for running the National Film and Television Archive which preserves some 300,000 film and television productions, many of which have been voluntarily deposited in the collection by producers and owners. The resources of the archive are predominantly applied to the task of preserving the holdings for the nation's heritage. For this reason there are limited viewing facilities for scholars and bona fide researchers. The BFI has announced its intention, through the BFI 2000 plan and its Imagination Network initiative, to develop online viewer access to some of the archive's holdings. This joint pilot will assist the BFI in developing its plans.

JISC is responsible for funding and co-ordinating the network infrastructure and services for higher education and research. Its broadband ATM network, SuperJANET is already often used to carry moving pictures. The JISC's committee on electronic information is looking to extend the range of content and services provided online.

There has been a tendency for scholars to ignore moving pictures as a research resource. This is strange because, when moving pictures were first being explored, it was the world of higher education which developed and made early use of the medium. The pioneer chronophotographers Etienne Marey (France), Pierre-Jules-Cesar Janssen (France), Albert Londe (France), Ottomar Anschutz (Germany) and Eadweard Muybridge (UK/United States), all of whom were associated with academic institutions in the latter half of the 19th century, had explored many aspects of the moving image well before the medium was exploited commercially by the Lumi re brothers in France. In 1900, Jean Commandon submitted his time-lapse cinemicrograph studies of the spirochete Treponema pallidum (which causes syphilis and had never before been recorded on film) as a key component of his thesis for PhD at the Sorbonne in Paris. This radical use of the new medium in the process of accreditation for a higher degree could have set a precedent for the future. However, some 100 years on, audiovisual works are rarely presented, referenced or accepted as items for academic accreditation in fields outside the study of the media.

There needs to be a considerable culture shift. To encourage that shift scholars and teachers require greater access to a comprehensive range of specialist moving picture sources at greater speed. They also need to perceive moving pictures as part of the body of interconnected referenced sources relating to their work.

An important issue which is a potential block to developing more efficient and extended viewer access to archival moving pictures is the question of rights ownership. There is scope to work towards a system which would operate within existing UK copyright legislation and the contracts of deposit agreed by the publicly-funded audiovisual archives. There are protective devices which can control the use of online viewing systems. The pilot project will be taking account of these questions and will include structures which, in the future, could be operated as a charging system for a larger scale service. The technology for compressing, storing, annotating and accessing moving pictures from file servers is already deliverable but is still developing fast. Software and hardware manufacturers are taking an interest in this pilot project because a scaled-up service for UK universities would present a significant opportunity for sales.

The joint project will be experimenting by providing access to 30 hours of running time of moving pictures selected from three subject areas: social history, medicine and film studies. A large proportion of the material will be sourced from the archive. Other significant suppliers will include the universities themselves and regional film archives associated with universities, such as the North-West Film Archive at Manchester Metropolitan University. The source material selected for the pilot (film and video) will be digitised and compressed to various standards, mainly MPEG-1 and MPEG-2, with the assistance of the national archive's John Paul Getty Preservation Centre, Berkhamsted. Metadata describing the collection of material will be added by the national archive's cataloguing section. Where possible the project will adopt the Dublin Core field structure. The collection with its associated metadata will be distributed over SuperJANET to servers at selected pilot sites. The material will then be managed locally. Data describing usage patterns will be gathered by clients.

The project manager appointed for the pilot is Greg Newton-Ingham of the Information Services Directorate at the University of East Anglia. The first two pilot sites are the University of Glamorgan (serving the South Wales Metropolitan Area Network or MAN) and the the Performing Arts Data Service at the University of Glasgow (serving the Scottish MANs). Two sites may be added later in the year.

While the pilot sites will be the focus of trials, other institutions connected to the MANs will also be part of the project. Glasgow and Glamorgan have good SuperJANET and MAN connections. If the pilot has the opportunity to extend to other sites part way through 1998 it will be to test ways of dealing with lower levels of connectivity.

On March 30-31, there will be a conference at the National Film Theatre in London which will be an opportunity to discuss the progress of the UK pilot project and to hear reports from parallel initiatives serving institutions of higher education in other European countries.

Murray Weston is director, British Universities Film and Video Council.

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