The script is just the start

The BBC's written archive is a scholarly treasure trove spanning all areas of 20th-century life. Zoe Corbyn takes a peek

July 9, 2009

From heated discussions about what to air to correspondence with literary giants, the BBC's written archive contains a wealth of intriguing information and untapped possibilities for scholars.

Although the corporation has recently begun to make some of these cultural riches available to the public online, in the form of themed collections on everything from the moon landings to George Orwell, for researchers there is no substitute for getting their hands dirty, Jacquie Kavanagh, the BBC's written archivist, said.

To her, the archive represents a treasure trove of material for scholars studying almost any aspect of British social and cultural life from the 1920s to the 1970s.

"In most aspects of 20th- century Britain, you scratch the surface and find the BBC covering it somewhere," she said. "There are a lot of people who don't realise how wide-ranging and rich the material available is."

Exhaustive resource

One academic to have put the archive to good use is David Hendy, reader in media and communication at the University of Westminster and author of Life on Air: A History of Radio Four (2007).

"People think of the archive as something that is just about broadcasting, but it seems to me that anyone who wants to look at any particular figure or theme in British cultural history will almost certainly find something there," he said.

The archive, which scholars can use for free, was opened to academics in 1970 and is housed at the Written Archives Centre in Reading.

There, filling more than six miles of shelves, are the working papers of the organisation since it began in 1922. Minutes of meetings, financial documents, correspondence with writers and entertainers as well as complaints are stored.

What most impresses Ms Kavanagh about the archive is its huge range, which grows out of the many roles the BBC plays. Not only is it a maker of programmes on every conceivable topic, it is also a major commissioner of music and drama, a pre-eminent news broadcaster, a publishing house, a concert organiser and - in times of crisis - an agent of the state.

"There is correspondence with all sorts of authors, which is marvellous for biographers, but we have also got daily logs of what went out, scripts of far more programmes than there are recordings, exchanges with governments and files that talk about different aspects of programming and policy, including hot debates about popular culture and taste."

In the past three years, the archive has also made BBC audience reports available to academics on request.

Ms Kavanagh said they "don't just reveal what people thought of particular programmes, but also what time they got up, ate their meals and went to bed, plus what they thought of everything from regional accents to women announcers".

The themed collections, which contain both programmes and material from the written archive, are being placed online as they are collated - a new one is released each month. Although they are aimed at the public rather than an academic audience, they are useful for educational purposes and can give scholars a taste of what the archive contains, Ms Kavanagh said.

Prepare to dig

On a practical level, the archive, which is open three days a week to academics (BBC staff use it for the remaining two), can be difficult to navigate.

A BBC staffer is assigned to assist scholars, but users need to make appointments well in advance of their visit. Researchers are urged to do plenty of preparation. For big projects, they are advised to make a preliminary scouting trip to learn how the material is organised.

To make the most of this massive resource, Dr Hendy counsels researchers to be patient and to think intuitively.

"Because the BBC is a large and complex organisation that has changed its structures, it takes a long time to get a feel for what is there," he said.

"You have to be intuitive and give yourself time to understand how the BBC works."

Dr Hendy said he was particularly looking forward to the day when post-1979 material was made available. At the moment, only documents predating that year are accessible, although the policy is being reviewed.

Dr Hendy said: "At some stage, the BBC will have to make a decision as to whether or not it is time to change the date and release a little bit more."

He predicted that there would be plenty of researchers keen to delve into the BBC's more recent past.

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