Sound and vision blog

19 posts categorized "Television"

01 October 2013

Semantic Media

On 23 September the British Library played host to the Semantic Media Network for a one-day worksop, snappily entitled Semantic Media @ British Library. The Network has been established by Queen Mary University of London to "address the challenge of time-based navigation in large collections of media documents". Digital and digitised media archives have grown vast, and finding what they actually contain has become a huge challenges for broadcasters, archivists, researchers and some bright developers who are interested in a challenge.

It was those developers who were the main target of the workshop, which was based around the sound and moving image collections of the British Library. After an opening address by Mark Sandler (Head of School of Electronic Engineering and Computer Science at Queen Mary) we had four short presentation from projects which have received funding support from the Network.

Michael Bell (Newcastle University) introduced the Tawny Overtone music synthesis project; Tim Crawford (Goldsmiths University of London) spoke on semantic linking and early lute music, which made for a delighful combination of  the ancient and modern; Ryan Stables (Birmingham City University) discussed 'Large-scale Capture of Producer-Defined Musical Semantics' (defining music recordings by subjective terms such as humans like to use but machines struggle to comprehend); and David Newman (University of Southampton) on enriching news stories by semantic means, specifically enriching episodes of Question Time with contextual information taken from Twitter, Wikipedia etc (so themes raised in the programme are connected to online resources).

Next up came three speakers from the British Library, describing our audiovisual collections, the potential for opening up their research value by extracting meaningful information (which is what semantic media is all about), and describing some of the challenges involved. Richard Ranft (Head of Sound and Vision) describe the British Library Sound Archive collection, with its 8 million tracks requiring 66 years were you to listen to it all - by which time rather more than an additional 8 million tracks will have been acquired. How to manage and make available such information, let alone listen to it all? Of course there is a catalogue to guide you to the Library's sound holdings, but some much information that the audio files contain lies buried because so much of the media is not yet in digital form, or if it is then barriers such as copyright and limited catalogue records mean that too much of the collection remains largely undiscovered. Automated indexing and enrichment through such tools as melody matching,  score matching, speaker identification and speech-to-text have the potential radically to transform how researchers engage with such archives. But demand needs to come before tools. Ranft was disarmingly frank about the need for users to demand more. From demand will come new services - people just need to raise their expectations and think not simply of what can be found now, but what ought to be found.

Paul Wilson (Radio Curator) described a collection of over 200,000 hours of radio, access to which would be radically transformed by the application of searching tools such as speaker identification and speech recognition. He described the national radio archiving picture overall, revealing the alarming fact that of the 3 million of hours of radio broadcast in the UK each year, only 3% can be said to be archived properly in a form that will ensure its long-term preservation. There is so much in radio content that can benefit a huge range of research enquiries, yet before we devise ingenious means of discovering such archives, we have to ensure that we have the archives to discover in the first place.

I then spoke on the News collection at the British Library, by which is meant newspapers, television, radio and web. We are at different stages of development for each. We house the British Newspaper Library, with some 750 million pages from the 17th century to today. Our television and radio news service, Broadcast News, began recording programmes in May 2010 and has now passed the figure of 30,000 titles, with some 60 hours of new content added every day. Web news sites are to be a special focus of our UK web archiving activities, now that the non-print legal deposit legislation and regulations are in place, but we are still in the process of determining which sites to harvest on a daily or weekly basis. The great challenge for the British Library will be to start forging meaningful links between these different news media, because ultimately the news does not exist in any one medium, rather it is we who seek out the news from the multiplicity of news forms available who create what news actually is, in our heads. Thinking semantically will help bring the news media together to create a more meaningful and potentially very exciting future for researchers.

A panel session then followed, for which Mahendra Mahey of the BL Labs initiaitive joined us, a project similar to the Semantic Media Network in encouraging the development of new ides with small amounts of project funding. The debate turned away from the practicalities of semantic linking to the angst of archivists. There is so much to be discovered, so much that can be done, but is the demand always there? Do you wait for demand, or hope to encourage it through new tools and services? Do we capture everything, even if we can? Where is the place of audiovisual in a Library which still - for the most part - puts print first and foremost?

The day finished with a lively 'speed-dating' session, in which we sat opposite another delegate, exchanged ideas for three minutes, then a bell rang and we all moved chairs to sit opposite someone else and started up the conversation once again. I came away with three business cards, so I can't have done too badly. The ultimate aim of the Network is just that - to be a network, because it is from casual meetings that ideas start to grow (Silicon Valley is built on that very principle).

The slides from most of the talks given on the day are available from the Semantic Media Network site. There will be a funding call from the Network before the end of this year, and hopefully some of the issues raised during the workshop will help inform the nature of that call or the responses that are made to it.

Many thanks are due to Sebastian Ewert and the team at Queen Mary for having put together such a productive and interesting event. If we put on another event like it, we'll want to bring in users and potential users to meet up with the developers. Combining need and opportunity so each feeds off the other - that's the way forward.

02 October 2012

New broadcast media resources at the British Library



The British Library is piloting three major new television and radio resources within its St Pancras, Colindale and Boston Spa reading rooms. Together with our existing sound collections the Library is now providing instant onsite access to nearly a million sound and moving image items. Additionally, we are now giving access to programme and transmission data for a further 20 million recordings, a proportion of which can also be made available for onsite listening - with advance notice - on request.

The three services are:

BBC Pilot Service

This is a trial service produced by the BBC in collaboration with the British Library. It brings together the BBC's programme catalogue, Radio Times data and BBC television and radio programmes recorded off-air from mid-2007 to the end of 2011. There are currently approximately 2.2 million catalogue records and 190,000 playable programmes, both television and radio. The Pilot Service is being made available in the Library's Reading Rooms on a trial basis between October 2012 and March 2013 but we hope to extend and augment the service in the future.

Broadcast News

This service provides access to daily television and radio news and current affairs programmes from seventeen channels (fifteen TV, two radio) broadcast in the UK since May 2010, recorded off-air by the British Library. The programmes will be almost instantly available, with new programmes available in our Reading Rooms within hours of broadcast. We currently record forty-six hours per day, including television services of the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Sky News, Al-Jazeera English, NHK World, CNN, France 24, Bloomberg, Russia Today and China's CCTV News, plus key news and current affairs programmes from BBC Radio 4 and the BBC World Service. Many of the television programmes come with subtitles, which we have made word-searchable, greatly enhancing Broadcast News as a research resource.

TRILT (Television & Radio Index for Learning & Teaching)

TRILT is a database of all UK television and radio broadcasts since 2001 (and selectively back to 1995). It covers every channel, every broadcast and every repeat, some 15 million records so far and growing by a million per year. Produced by the British Universities Film & Video Council (BUFVC) it is regularly used by many universities but has never before been available to general users.

Broadcast News - Front page


For reasons of copyright and licence, the three services can only be made available in our Reading Rooms for registered British Library users. The sound and moving image items can be accessed at any of the dedicated multimedia terminals within each Reading Room. There are currently twenty-five terminals, at least one per Room, but this will soon be increased to sixty. Eventually we aim to equip every Reading Room terminal for multimedia access.

To access the new services just follow the link to Sound and Moving Image services from the front page of any Reading Room terminal equipped with headphones (you can't use your own headphones, please note).

We are keen to have feedback from users, and you will find a link to a survey at each of the multimedia terminals. Do fill it in and let us know your thoughts on the services and how you think we can develop things further.

Additional information on our moving image holdings and services is available on the Library's Help for Researchers pages.

01 October 2012

New moving image service at the British Library


Today, 1 October 2012, sees the piloting of the British Library's moving image services. We've provided access to our specialist moving image collections as an appointment service before now, but from today we are offering two new, instant access services for anyone researching in one of our Reading Rooms (at St Pancras, Colindale or Boston Spa) and special access to a huge television and radio database. In combination with our existing sound collections we can provide instant access to nearly a million sound and moving image items onsite, supported by data for over 20 million sound and moving image recordings.

The three services are:

BBC Pilot Service

This is a trial service produced by the BBC in collaboration with the British Library. It brings together the BBC's programme catalogue, Radio Times data and BBC television and radio programmes recorded off-air from mid-2007 to the end of 2011. There are approximately 2.2 million catalogue records and 190,000 playable programmes, both television and radio. The Pilot Service is being made available in the Library's Reading Rooms on a trial basis between October 2012 and March 2013, and users should look on the catalogue as a platform on which we hope to build further services in the future.

Broadcast News

This service provides access to daily television and radio news programmes from seventeen channels (fifteen TV, two radio) broadcast in the UK since May 2010, recorded off-air by the British Library. The programmes will be almost instantly available, with new programmes available in our Reading Rooms within hours of broadcast. We currently record forty-six hours per day, including BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Sky News, Al-Jazeera English, NHK World, CNN, France 24, Bloomberg, Russia Today and China's CCTV News. Many of the programmes come with subtitles, which we have made word-searchable, greatly enhancing Broadcast News as a research resource.

TRILT (Television & Radio Index for Learning & Teaching)

TRILT is a database of all UK television and radio broadcasts since 2001 (and selectively back to 1995). It covers every channel, every broadcast and every repeat, some 15 million records so far and growing by a million per year. Produced by the British Universities Film & Video Council (BUFVC) it is regularly used by many universities but has never before been available to general users.

Broadcast News - Front page


For reasons of copyright and licence, the three services can only be made available in our Reading Rooms for registered British Library users. The sound and moving image items can be accessed at dedicated multimedia terminals (equipped with non-sound leakage headphones) of which there will be at least one in every Reading Room. We're starting with twenty-five terminals and will soon raise this to sixty. Eventually - if things develop as we hope they will - every terminal that we provide for users in our Reading Rooms should be equipped for multimedia access.

To find the services, just follow the link to Sound and Moving services from the front page of any Reading Room terminal - but remember you'll need to pick one equipped with headphones to hear any of it (you can't plug in your own headphones, please note).

We are keen to have feedback from users, and you will find a link to a survey at each of the multimedia terminals. Do fill it in and let us know your thoughts on the services and how you think we can be developing things further.

We have more in the pipeline, not least the first fruits of our film and video digitisation projects, but that you'll be seing in the new year, when we will formally launch the new sound and moving image services. For now we're putting them out for a test drive - and we'd love to know what you think.

There's more information on all our moving image holdings and services on the Library's Help for Researchers pages.

29 July 2012

Pandaemonium and the Isles of Wonder


Pandaemonium is the Palace of All the Devils. Its building began c.1660. It will never be finished – it has to be transformed into Jerusalem. The building of Pandaemonium is the real history of Britain for the last three hundred years.

Frank Cottrell Boyce, the writer behind ‘Isles of Wonder', the extraordinary and widely acclaimed opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympic Games, has revealed in a Guardian article that a major inspiration for the work was Humphrey Jennings’ Pandaemonium.  Of the creative process with director Danny Boyle he writes:

We shared the things we loved about Britain – the Industrial Revolution, the digital revolution, the NHS, pop music, children's literature, genius engineers. I bought Danny a copy of Humphrey Jennings's astonishing book Pandemonium for Christmas and soon everyone seemed to have it. The show's opening section ended up named "Pandemonium".

'Pandaemonium', as the BBC commentary noted on the night, was the name that John Milton gave to the capital of Hell in his epic poem 'Paradise Lost'. It is also the title of Humphrey Jennings’ posthumously published book which is a collection of nearly 400 contemporary texts dating 1660-1886 that, as the book’s subtitle puts it, illustrate ‘the coming of the machine as seen by contemporary observers’.

Humphrey Jennings (1907-1950) is generally recognised to be among the greatest of all British documentary filmmakers. In films such as London Can Take It! (1940, co-directed with Harry Watt), Listen to Britain (1942, co-directed with Stewart McAllister), Fires Were Started (1943) and A Diary for Timothy (1946), Jennings documented the relevance of the British experience of war to history, art, society and culture. Often described as a poet among filmmakers, he applied a poet’s synthetic vision to the British condition at a time of national crisis. If you have not knowingly seen one of his films, you will have undoubtedly come across sequences from them, because they have been ceaselessly plundered by television for footage illustrating the impact of the war on Britain. For example, Andrew Marr’s piece on the history of London that featured as part of the BBC’s build-up programme ahead of the opening ceremony used several shots from London Can Take It!

That poet’s synthetic vision was also applied to Pandaemonium, a collection of texts (or Images, as Jennings described them) which he worked on between 1937 and his accidental death in 1950, without ever shaping the material into a finished manuscript or finding a publisher. It was not until 1985 that his daughter Mary-Lou Jennings and Charles Madge (like Jennings a co-founder of the social investigation organisation Mass-Observation) edited a version of the work that was close as could be hoped to Jennings’ conception.

Pandaemonium comprises texts from poets, diarists, scientists, industrialists, politicians, novelists and social commentators who wittingly or unwittingly document the great changes wrought in British society by the industrial revolution. It begins with Milton’s description (written c.1660) of the building of Pandaemonium, and anyone who saw Boyle and Boyce’ vision of Glastonbury Tor, from which burst forth fire as the tree at its top was uprooted, ushering in the industrial revolution will recognise its inspiration in Milton’s opening words:

There stood a Hill not far whose grisly top
Belch’d fire and rowling smoak; the rest entire
Shon with a glossie scurff, undoubted sign
That in his womb was hid metallic Ore,
The work of Sulphur. Thither wing’d with speed
A numerous Brigad hastens. As when bands
Of Pioners with Spade and Pickaxe arm’d
Forerun the Royal Camp, to trench a Field,
Or cast a Rampart. Mammon led them on,
Mammon, the least erectd Spirit that fell
From heav’n, for eve’n his looks and thoughts
Were always downwards bent, admiring ore
The riches of Heav’ns pavements, trod’n Gold ...

The quotation at the head of this post comes from notes Jennings wrote for an introduction to the work, and it confirms the influence Pandaemonium had on Danny Boyle and his creative team (not least in their sly critique of the corporately-sponsored Olympics themselves, with the Olympic rings being forged in the furnaces of the dark Satanic mills). Pandaemonium has been built, and continues to be built – the task is to transform it into Jerusalem. So Boyle and Boyce do not look for a return to that green and pleasant land portrayed at the start of ‘Isles of Wonder’. Instead they look with hopes toward what has and can still be built out of it, to fulfil the vision expressed in William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’.

Vision is the operative word. In his introduction (as reconstructed by Charles Madge), Jennings says that his Images, whose construction he likens to 'an unrolling film', illustrate ‘the Means of Vision and the Means of Production’. The Industrial Revolution he sees as the victory of Production over Vision, of materialism over poetry, which has failed to keep up with, or to master, the changes brought about by industrialisation:

It would take a large work on its own to show, in the great period of English poets 1570-1750, the desperate struggle that poets had to keep poetry’s head into the wind: to keep it facing life. But by 1750 the struggle – like that of the peasants – was over. In other words poetry has been expropriated.

Boyle and Boyce were inspired by Jennings, but they also sought to show how the argument has moved on since Jennings’ time, to show that there could be a greater balance between production and vision. ‘Isles of Wonder’ was divided into three main sections (with comic interludes featuring the Queen and Mr Bean). The first, 'Pandaemonium', showed the march of industrial society over the green and pleasant land, but also the changes in society that the process unwittingly led to – women’s suffrage, Jarrow marchers, the Empire Windrush, the Beatles. The second, ‘Second Star on the Right and Straight on Till Morning’ took children’s literature as its theme, pitting its villains (Cruella De Vil, Lord Voldemort) again the forces of collective good, represented by the NHS and a host of Mary Poppinses. It can also be seen as representing the revival of poetic sensibility and responsibility, the human urge towards the greater good, defeating the forces of Mammon. From thesis to antithesis to synthesis, and the third part, 'Frankie & June say …Thanks Tim' finds great hope in another revolution, the digital revolution (Tim being Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web). Here an interconnected society, themes from which we had seen prefigured in the earlier parts, overrides the forces that have divided it in the past, moving forward to – perhaps – Jerusalem.


Extract from Listen to Britain

Humphrey Jennings could never have conceived of such a spectacle as ‘Isles of Wonder’, but he might have understood the technique, not least with reference to his own documentary films. Listen to Britain (which could almost have been a subtitle for ‘Isles of Wonder’) is a portrait of national unity illustrated through the songs and sounds of a country at war. There is no narration, only images of the different corners of the land and different strata of society, bound together by effort and by sound (factories, Myra Hess playing piano at the National Gallery, variety entertainers Flanagan and Allen). Spare Time (1939), a film closest in conception to Jennings’ brief involvement with Mass-Observation, shows how Britain’s working class enjoys its leisure time, from pubs to wrestling matches, from allotments to marching kazoo bands. Such films succeed through a subtle association of ideas, one image illuminating the next by association. As with his films, so it was with the unrolling film of Images in Pandaemonium, and now with ‘Isles of Wonder’

If you're trying to celebrate a nation's identity, you have to take things that are familiar parts of the landscape and make them wonderful.

So writes Frank Cotterell Boyce, and they are words to explain the art of Humphrey Jennings as well. It is what a great documentary filmmaker can do: capture images of common stuff, and transmute them into something wonderful. To do so, it is necessary not just to photograph your subject well, or to edit with a satisfying rhythm. You must have a governing idea to give those images meaning. Humphrey Jennings wanted to see Jerusalem built once more; Danny Boyle and Frank Cottrell Boyce have encouraged us all to dream of the same.

‘Isles of Wonder’ and the full  London 2012 opening ceremony were recorded by the British Library as part of its off-air television news service, Broadcast News, which we are planning to make available to onsite Library users from the end of September 2012. More news of this, and other moving image and sound services currently in development, will follow soon.

05 March 2012

Words into words



This British Library event on 'The Future of Text', held 22 September 2011, includes a talk by me on the opportunities provided by subtitle and speech-to-text searching (at 1:25:10, and you'll need to turn the volume up...)

The key term when considering what we need to do with moving images at the British is 'integration'. It turns up on every strategy document, every PowerPoint presentation, every funding application. We are not interested (primarily) in the medium for its own sake, but as it supports research in other subjects. We want researchers to search for the topic that interests them and to be able to offer them, in the one place, books, journals, newspapers, photographs, maps, websites, sound recordings ... and moving images. There should be no hierachy among the media, and the more varied and integrated an offering we can provide for researchers, the more chances there are of them finding something that surprises them, that takes their research into corners they hadn't considered.

To achieve this noble vision, we need to do two things. The first, of course, is to have the moving images. We have a growing collection of these (around 55,000 at the last count), many of them music-related since they were collected by our Sound Archive, though the collection is starting to increase in breadth. We hope to extend the number of moving image items we offer considerably through partnerships, more of which at another time.

Second is to have the tools to enable researchers to find these different media in the one place. The Library has already made a big step forward here with its new Explore the British Library catalogue, which brings a large part of our collection, including  some of the moving image collection, in the one place. Searches can be filtered by any medium, including moving image, and we'll be adding more films and video records to the catalogue over the next few months.

But having films, books, manuscripts etc. all in the one place doesn't necessarily make for equality of searching. Unless you have equally rich metadata, or catalogue records, for each medium, then - simply put - those media with more words will get more attention. As the Library delves all the more into offering full-text searching, then the moving image has to be there too, or it will get put to the sidelines once again.

We were aware of this need when we started our television and radio news recording programme, which is due to become a reading room service quite soon (more on that innovation in a later post). The service, which we are calling Broadcast News, captures subtitles from television news programmes where these are available, then translates these into word-searchable text (a considerable technical challenge, because the subtitles on your TV programmes are graphics, not text, and need to be read through a process not unlike OCR). So you can search across thousands of television news programmes through the words spoken on the screen.

This is exciting, but not all television channels come with subtitles, particularly satellite channels. Other tools are required, and this is why we are looking at speech-to-text software. Voice recognition and speech-to-text are starting to become familiar. Mobile phone apps now offer voice command features and the ability to translates voice messages into text. Speech-to-text applications are used by medical services, legal services, and the military. The great challenge is to scale such technology up to the demands of large archives. The problems are considerable. Most voice recognition packages rely on recognising one voice - your own. They struggle with alien voices, multiple speakers, unfamiliar accents, and so on. Here at the Library we have television news programmes, radio broadcasts, oral history recordings and other speech-based archives access to which would be revolutionised by an effective, and affordable, speech-to-text capability, enabling these media to be word-searchable in seconds rather than the hours it currently takes to get through some recordings.

The right solution is not going to become available overnight. Last year we successfully trialled Microsoft's MAVIS speech-to-text programme as part of our Growing Knowledge exhibition, indexing 1,000 hours of interview material and 100 hours of video news. We are now going to build on that initial experiment as part of a one-year research project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, as part of its Digital Transformations in Arts and Humanities theme.

The project is not about finding a technical solution per se (they already exist). Although we hope to generate up to 6,000 hours of indexed, word-searchable content (3,000 of video news, 3,000 of radio), the chief aim of the project will be to determine the value to researchers. We will be asking three main questions:

  1. How useful are the results to researchers in the arts and humanities? Speech-to-text systems cannot deliver perfect transcripts, but they are now at a stage of accuracy where they can offer a reliable, indeed liberating word-searching capability. The value of this will need to be explored with researchers in the arts and humanities. We will establish user groups working with postgraduate students in radio studies and journalism studies, testing research scenarios that focus both on the audio-visual media alone and integrated with other, text-based media.
  2. We need to understand the methodological and interpretative issues involved. Imperfect indexing by speech-to-text systems can lead to misleading results (for example, a television news programme with the words ‘new tax breaks for married couples’ was indexed by MAVIS as ‘no tax breaks for married couples’). The project will need to explore such pitfalls, to consider how best to quote and cite such recordings, how to evaluate results from audio-visual media alongside other text-based media (what is the correlation between a speech transcription and the text of a newspaper article?), and other issues.
  3. How can speech-to-text technology be adopted in UK research in a form that is readily accessible and affordable? The project will look at the various systems available and provide guidelines as to usability, affordability and sustainability.

So we are not just interested in our own needs, but in how such technologies can support research in the arts and humanities overall. We will be publishing and promoting the results of our findings at the end of the project. We are keen to hear from anyone with an interest in this area, so if this something that you know about, or have an opinion about, do get in touch. The email address is

31 October 2010

Searching video, growing knowledge 2


Audio Search results page

OK, as promised, here's part two of the guide to the moving image applications available for testing at the British Library's Growing Knowledge exhibition. In the last post we covered Video Server, which is making BBC television news recordings from May 2010 available with a subtitle search facility. This involves some ingenious work underneath the bonnet, because TV subtitles comes as graphics, not text. The results are - we think - very impressive and other huge potential for integrating video content with other, text-based resources in a digital research environment. But what about video content that doesn't come with subtitles?

Many TV channels do not have a subtitles feature (generally in the UK it is only the terrestrial channels that do), so unless you have access to catalogue information, which can be scanty in any case, then you have to scroll through the video, or audio file, until you get to what you are looking for - if it is there at all. What is needed is software that converts speech to text. And that's what we've got.

MS Audio Search makes use of Microsoft Research Audio Video Indexing System, or MAVIS. This is speech-recognition software which takes an audio file and converts the sounds searchable text, by means of 'Large-vocabulary continuous speech recognition', which essentially means that it is underpinned by a dictionary and a language grammar controller. In practice you type in a search term, and up comes a range of videos with a column on the results page which gives those lines in the speech track where your search term was spoke. Click on any one of these and it takes you to a point roughly five seconds before the word is spoken and plays the video or audio.

For the purposes of Growing Knowledge we have made available around 120 hours of BBC television news programmes dating May-August 2010, plus around 500 hours of audio-only reording from the British Library's collection, covering oral history interviews with Jewish Holocaust survivors, talks at at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts, and interviews with British painters, sculptors, photographers and architects. The software isn't perfect - there's around 70% accuracy rate - and it is essential to cross-check with the actual audio track that you have selected because the 'transcript' alone cannot be trusted as an entirely accurate record of what has been said, which is the same with subtitle or indeed with any form of optical character recognition (OCR). The software is happiest with clearly-spoken English, and struggles a little when there are multiple speakers.

But even so, wow. The potential is huge. Audio or video recordings can become immediately discoverable instead or requiring a period of time to analyse their contents, so long as there is a speech track. Because a dictionary underpins the resource, you can build up a thesaurus and keywords, and develop rich linkages with other text-based resources. Although it is early days for such technology, it will in time open up audiovisual archives to an unimaginable degree.

You can try out MS Audio Search and Video Server at the Growing Knowledge exhibition, which runs until July 2011. We're unable to make the video content available remotely through the Growing Knowledge website, but you can test out the audio files from the British Library and other institutions experimenting with MAVIS at Microsoft's test site. Do have a go, and just imagine what the future for research might be.

14 October 2010

Searching video, growing knowledge


It's taken a while, but at long last we've been able to go public with our first digital video service. From today the British Library is showcasing its digital video management system, or Video Server, in the Growing Knowledge exhibition. Growing Knowledge is a small exhibition about the future of research, and "aims to challenge our audiences on how research is changing and ask what they want to experience from the library of the future". In practice this means presenting users with an array of mostly web-based projects which are pointing the way forward for research, with new tools, partnerships, forms of interaction, and outcomes.

Should you visit Growing Knowledge - which runs until 16 July 2011 - you will be confronted by a startlingly white room looking much like the set of a 1970s sci-fi movie (Sleeper? THX 1138? 2001: A Space Odyssey? - you take your choice). There is a browsable 19th century panorama on a surface table and an ingenious 3-D object viewer to distract your attention, but the main business is at four 'pods', which offer different arrangment of screens and and some particularly comfortable chairs at which to test the resources on offer. There are twenty-five of them, most of which you can also test online through the Growing Knowledge website. One that you can test onsite only (owing to rights issues) is Video Server.


What we are offering is BBC television news pogrammes which we have been recording since 6 May 2010 (general election day), which you can access by searching across subtitles. This is rather more difficult than you might think, as the subtitles provided for television programmes are not text-based but graphics (bitmaps) and need to be processed through the video equivalent of optical character recognition to convert them to text. This is what Video Server does, and it makes the news programmes word searchable. Above is the results page for an individual programme (The Andrew Marr Show) showing the subtitles down the left-hand side, with the term searched for highlighted. Click on all line of text and it takes you automatically to that point in the video.


Below the video player and subtitles is another clever bit - the thumbnails. It displays a thumbnail image every five, ten or fifteen seconds, and by clicking on any image it takes you to that exact point in the video. Thus the time-based medium is made word-searchable and visible in its entirety on a single page, so that the researcher can see immediately where to go within the video without having to browse through for thirty minutes or more. The potential for improved searching, and for linking up video content to other resources (especially news-based resources) through word-linkages is huge.


There's also a Workspaces feature, which enables you to select programmes on whatever theme you might wish to investigate and to view them all together. Eventually, when Video Server becomes a public service the workspaces will be private, accessible by personal log-in. For the purposes of the exhibition they are open to all.

Video Server is still a work in progress, and we are keen to receive feedback on its functionality and utility as a research tool. Behind the scenes we are recording more channels that just BBC 1, 2, 4, News and Parliament (which are the ones featured in the exhibition). The next stage for Video Server will be when it becomes a British Library reading room service, which should be by autumn 2011, and where we plan to make available a greater range of content. At present we are recording 13 hours of TV and 6 hours of radio per day - we hope to up this to 25 hours of TV per day quite soon. We're also aiming to add digitised video material from our non-news collections. Meanwhile we continue to test, and to add content - all new BBC programmes that we record (and we are doing so on a daily basis) will be added to the service in the Growing Knowledge exhibiton.

But what about television news programmes that don't have subtitles? What about radio and other forms of speech recording which present a huge challenge for the researcher who needs to find subjects quickly and efficiently? Well, there is another solution on display in Growing Knowledge - Audio Search. More on that in the next post.

06 April 2010

Adam Curtis: the medium and the message

Frame still from 1935 home movie footage by Group Captain Lister showing the bombing of Warziristan villages in Afghanistan in 1935, from a 1980 BBC documentary

Television is changing. This change is not simply in the modes of delivery (essentially the broadband and broadcast trend demonstrated by iPlayer, Hulu, SeeSaw, Project Canvas and such like) but in forms of television productions themselves. We are familiar with television programmes having offshoots such as books, DVD releases, websites, forums, and so on. Now we are starting to see programmes which have an organic life across several platforms, and whose development we can track, comment upon, and maybe influence.

The BBC's 'open source' series on the history of the Internet, Virtual Revolution, though a relatively conventional set of programmes once it made it to air, went to town with the idea of sharing its ideas with a knowledgeable audience. The programme blog brought us into the decisioning-making process, arguing ideas, explaining trains of thought, testing hypotheses, exchanging information.

However, the truly ground-breaking work is being done by Adam Curtis. The director of the uber-cultish The Trap, Power of Nightmares and Century of the Self has established a blog, Adam Curtis - The Medium and the Message, to show projects in embryos and the fruits of his research, which may end up as programmes, events, installations, or maybe nowhere at all. He has used it to preview It Felt Like a Kiss, a programme (yet to be broadcast on TV) which was also part of a shock art event at the Manchester International Festival in 2009, and to cover subjects ranging from the British art of heckling to the strange relationship between anthropological filmmakers and Brazilian tribes.

However, the major use of The Medium and the Message has been the series Kabul: City Number One. Curtis outlined his ideas at the start of the series in September 2009:

"I am researching the extraordinary history of the West's relationship to Afghanistan over the past 200 years. It is a very complex, and sometimes weird, story. These are notes on some of the characters and episodes involved."

What he writes are notes, though rather more artfully composed than the random jottings this might suggest. Curtis's trademark is unearthing hidden histories in which remarkable and seemingly disparate elements come together to relate a history of our times that is unknown to most, yet which Curtis persuasively argues has come to shape the way our perception of the world is managed. It is borderline conspiracy theory, but it also makes us rethink our assumptions. Curtis also makes bravura use of archive footage, both for its mocking commentary on the times and for the special evidence it provides on the past.

Kabul: City Number One is now eight blog posts old, and weaves an extraordinary tale of past and present British and American involvement in Afghanistan, of opposing the opposing forces of modernism and traditionalism, of conflicting ideologies and the triumphs, trasgedies and idiosyncracies of some remarkable (and often little-known) inpiduals who have played their part on a history that becomes ever more fascinating complex the more Curtis delves into motives and connections.

Especially engrossing is the use of archive film. Curtis is making available clips from the BBC archive (to UK users only, owing to copyright restrictions) which illustrate his theme, but which go far beyond the conventional use of clips in a programme, both because he is able to show more and because they allow him to explore tagents to his theme, encouraging us to explore the subject(s) further for ourselves. For example, in episode no. 1 he included clips from a 1972 BBC series British Empire: Echoes of Britainnia's Rule including an horrific recreation of the execution by British soldiers of Indians during the Mutiny who were strapped to cannons. Curtis tells us that the sequence was edited out after broadcast, and that special permission is required to show it. He has evidently obtained such permission.

Other clips have included such disparate material as spirited Afghan pop music, a haunting memoir by mountaineer Peter Boardman from the 1978 BBC series The Light of Experience, quirky clips from children's programme Blue Peter, Soviet propaganda films, BBC news reports, and - in the most recent episode The Weird World of Warizistan - astonishing home movie footage of the British aerial bombing of Afghanistan in 1935 (made all the more extraordinary by the cool tone of the pilot/cameraman being interviewed in 1980).

All of this makes for great television. It's not conventional television, of course, since it is presented in the form of a blog with video clips, but Curtis has broken down the barrier between production process and exhibition to create something that is television in a new form. The commentary is there; the thesis is established; there are images, video clips and audio files, but these illustrations - like the argument in general - show far greater licence than television allows. Curtis rambles wherever his mind leads him, and the clips are far longer than television would ever allow as illustration. We see the archive video in its fuller extent, and we can choose whether to see some, all or none of it (it needs to be noted that Curtis is rather poor when it comes to the provenance and dating of his discoveries in the archives). We would never see any of these clips on the usual TV archive sites or catch-up services. It takes a television producer with an oblique eye to unearth such material and to see how it contributes to the thesis. It requires a belief in the documentary value of video - not as decoration, but as a medium that records life in a profoundly illuminating way. Curtis praises the filmmakers whose work he has unearthed again and again, with evident respect for their skills and what the medium can reveal.

How this is all paid for is not made clear. Curtis can find the clips and broadcast them, but is he working to a standard TV production budget? Is this material going to end up as the next Curtis TV series, or has it moved from work-in-progress to the work itself? Whatever the method, and whatever the result, do watch/read The Medium and the Message, and think not just about Curtis's agenda but about what extraordinary material lies in our broadcast archives, how many are the different ways in which such material can be used to inform, educate and entertain, and how important it is that we keep on demanding for ever greater access to those archives. And this is not just access to the programme as broadcast, but equally to its composite parts, which have lives of their own. There are many millions of different histories there, still waiting to be told.

Posted via email from Luke McKernan

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