Meet, understand, collaborate: A plea to enhance the relations between media archivists and media historians

Brecht Declercq, FIAT/IFTA

24 February 2021


There is no mass medium that has influenced the world more throughout the second half of the twentieth century than television. Television has documented the world in a pervasive manner and in almost all of its aspects. The twentieth century was the first in history to be documented in images and sounds from the start until the end. Of all the ways in which image and sounds were distributed in the twentieth century, television was by far the one with the greatest reach. For anyone who wants to understand the history of the second half of the twentieth century, television is therefore an indispensable source. In view of the above, it could be said that whatever the subject studied – and even if it has little to do with television in particular – television broadcasts are a source that contemporary historians should never skip, if only as an introduction into the subject chosen.

The cliché of inaccessibility

Still, unlike newspaper collections for example, television archives are not always part of historians’ spontaneous reflex when it comes to listing the possible source locations at the beginning of their research. It would make little sense to try to find a culprit for this, but a small analysis of possible causes can help as a starting point for change.

From their side, historians until a few years ago sometimes referred to ‘the inaccessibility of television and radio archives’. On closer inspection, this ‘inaccessibility’ turned out to be a catch-all term for various reasons: not enough archive material could be consulted from home, making an on-site visit necessary, searching the catalogues wasn’t easy to outsiders, or the actual viewing or listening required technical knowledge of the playback equipment.

Of course, television and radio archivists can now debunk the clichés invoked above without further ado. But whether they are justified or not is actually irrelevant. The fact is that they exist and apparently still exert great force. Enough to deter at least a few professional and passionate historians. If television and radio archives want to remove the perception of inaccessibility, then efforts are also expected on their behalf.

Vis-à-vis this amalgam of reasons called ‘inaccessibility’, media archivists can provide another amalgam as an answer, a simple adage that applies to almost all television and radio archives managed by broadcasters: they were simply conceived, expanded and organised for another purpose than serving historical researchers. Television and radio archives managed by a broadcaster are, in principle, primarily concerned with assisting television and radio production. It may be a shame from a scientific perspective, but it is a fact, and due to the evolution from linear to non-linear broadcasting, and the accompanying transition from the delivery challenge to the discovery challenge, this is not going change soon. Research at EBU and DR has shown that up to 75% of the broadcasting time of public broadcasters is filled with images and sounds that are not broadcast for the first time. This percentage is probably even higher for commercial broadcasters. This means that for at least 75% of the broadcasting time, archivist’s work is indispensable to get it filled. In the context of media production, it is also important to remember that the archive is not only concerned with the content that was broadcast many years ago, but also with what is a few seconds old, and even with what has yet to be broadcast.

Broadcast archives and their context

It is not obvious to call a broadcaster’s archive a real heritage organisation. These archives simply do not have the same raison d’être or the same designated community as heritage organisations. It is true that in a few European countries, over the past 15 years independent organisations have been set up with the statutory task of dealing with various aspects of television and/or radio archiving, often including services to scientific researchers, for example historians. In Finland (KAVI) and Dutch-speaking Belgium (VIAA, now meemoo) this happened quite successfully, in Greece (HeNAA), Hungary (NAVA) and French-speaking Belgium (Sonuma) the newly established institutions came back under the umbrella of the public broadcaster before their tenth anniversary.

Nevertheless, in a number of European countries (e.g. Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, all Balkan countries and the Baltic States), the broadcasters themselves are the only real responsible for the television and radio archives in their country. Outside of Europe this situation is even more common. Here and there legal provisions and associated funding are available for broadcaster’s archives to serve historical research, but more often such service depends solely on the goodwill of the archivists. Occasionally a zero-sum logic is still followed, stating that every hour of work, every penny invested in helping historians – or any other kind of scientific researcher – cannot be spent on the tasks that the archive is supposed to do according to its statutes. Given the precarious circumstances in which certain broadcasting archives have to work, the archivists can hardly be blamed. In other words: it is the underlying institutional context that defines the extent to which television and radio archives can assist researchers. Without a clear understanding of this context, archivists and historians may find it difficult to achieve a successful collaboration.

What historians need to know about how a broadcast archive works

What are the benefits of a good understanding between broadcast archivists and historians? And how does that good understanding between researchers and television and radio archivists translate into practice? First of all, good comprehension about what a broadcast archive is and how it works is a great way to debunk misunderstandings and frustration on both sides.

Every piece of good historical research has a chapter discussing the sources used. Evidently who manages the source material also has its influence. It is up to the historian to recognize, understand and respond to this inevitable bias at every stage of the research phase. Shortly stated: historians using broadcast archives have great interest in knowing how broadcast archives work. By raising four fundamental questions, we would like to point to four key aspects of broadcast archival functioning that historical researchers should be aware of.

The first question is the most fundamental: which material is kept and which material is not? To debunk a widespread myth: radio and television archives do certainly not hold everything that has been broadcast. It’s usually much less, but often also much more.  Not every country has a legal deposit, the obligation to preserve a full record of all radio and television broadcasts. Where they exist, legal deposit laws are not always implemented well. In no country the legal deposit started functioning on the first broadcasting day of the first radio or television broadcaster.

Just as every paper archive has got its omissions, no broadcast archive of some age has a complete record of what has ever been aired and often that was not even the intention at the beginning. Experienced scientific users of broadcast archives know the reasons and have passed the stage where they lose their energy to frustration in this regard. But every now and then the popular press still features spectacular-looking headlines about wiped tapes and filled containers. Invariably context, background and international comparison are lacking in such lines. Archivists sometimes tacitly hope that historians will use such articles to raise their voice for more investment in broadcast archives, just to make sure that funding bodies for once get to hear such pleas from someone else than the usual suspects.

On the other hand, many broadcast archives also contain more than what has been broadcast, and that is not always well known either. The following example from Flanders will illustrate this: in the eighties the Flemish television journalist Maurice De Wilde made a remarkable series of documentaries about the collaboration and the resistance in Belgium during the Second World War. For the first time, hundreds of witnesses were thoroughly questioned about their role during the war. Professor Bruno De Wever (Ghent University) rightly calls it “a core collection of audiovisual heritage in Flanders.” Some Flemish historians are aware that VRT not only preserved the broadcasts, but also the rushes, containing information less interesting for the general audience back then, but all the more for a specific audience today. Far less known is that what De Wilde left behind in the archives is even more than the rushes and the broadcasts. For the benefit of a team of secretaries transcribing the interviews in full, De Wilde put a small audio cassette recorder next to the camera. When the witnesses asked to stop the camera, the cassette recorder often went on with its job. De Wilde’s audio cassettes are preserved and digitised by the VRT radio archives. One can imagine the historical value of this off-but-still-on-the-record material.

Once an historian has a good understanding of what a broadcast archive keeps and what it doesn’t, the second question can be asked: which material can be found and which cannot? Historians are not always aware, but as with all archives, also in broadcast archives a certain time passes between the moment of acquisition and the moment the records are processed and entered in the archival databases with a searchable description. This time span can range literally from seconds to decades. It should be clear that the moment of acquisition in broadcast archives is not always the same as the broadcast date. Fortunately, the introduction of media asset management (MAM) systems has significantly improved the acquisition processes of many broadcast archives since about 15 years. Moreover, large-scale digitisation projects have ensured that collections that had been waiting to be catalogued for years are now slowly getting processed. At the same time, every broadcast archivist knows plenty of examples of interesting, missing material, brought in by retired producers – or their widows – often decades after the broadcast.

Related to the above is a third question: which queries will lead to results and which will not? It is in the nature of sounds and moving images that the search terms used to interrogate archival databases are not present as such inside these materials. Without a substantive textual description, audiovisual archive material is simply impossible to find. Despite all the innovation in the creation methods of descriptive metadata, this description task remains the most labour intensive – and therefore the most expensive – of all audiovisual archiving tasks. It is therefore logical and defendable for broadcast archives to vary the level of detail (‘seuil de finesse’) with which they describe their materials. Often these levels of granularity in the descriptive metadata are attributed according to the genre. It is also logical and defendable that these levels are partly determined by the designated communities and the way they mostly use the material. In concrete terms news, sports and current affairs broadcasts are often described with the most detail, because they are internally perceived as the most important content that broadcasters produce and the most likely to be re-used. Entertainment programs such as quizzes or soap operas often receive a far less detailed description. This inevitably creates a bias in any list of search results and historians in particular should be aware of this.

Even if a programme receives the most detailed level of description, the perspective of the archivist is equally important. Of course, documentalists attach great importance to objectivity. But the summa ratio of their work remains the findability for re-use, and the main re-users of audiovisual source material are and remain radio and television producers. Therefore documentalists make their descriptions with the media producers in mind (‘seuil de pertinence’). Once again we bring in a Flemish example, this time from the domain of climatology: in 2016-2017, Professors De Frenne, Verheye and Vangansbeke (Ghent University) were looking for historical data on the blossoming of tree leaves in Flanders for their climatological research. They came up with the ground-breaking idea of using archival footage for this, in particular of the cycling race the Tour of Flanders, held every year on more or less the same route and on more or less the same day. It goes without saying that the VRT documentalists had not included details about the blossoming of the trees in their descriptions of these images. In other words: the archivist’s description can never reach as far as the scientist’s imagination. Archivists nor scientists are to blame, but it does affect every search result.

A fourth and final issue that historians researching broadcast archives should be aware of, is about the form in which the archive material is stored. Many historians expect to find in broadcast archives the sound and image materials as the audience has seen or heard them. But it should be kept in mind that broadcast archives often attach less importance to the form in which the material reached viewers and listeners, than to the form in which they themselves or their footage sales customers can re-use it. Sometimes those two are the same, but often they are not. Especially when resources are limited, priority might be given to the so-called ‘clean’ version of the images, without subtitling, digital on-screen graphics, on-screen displays, news tickers, lower thirds, etc. The same principle applies in many radio archives: unedited interviews or reportage materials, for which the Germanophone world invented the word ‘O-töne’, are much easier to re-use than rendered programmes, especially if they feature music beds or soundscapes. It is correct that compliancy recordings can offer an alternative here, but with many broadcasters these are deleted when the legal retention period has expired.

FIAT/IFTA: promotor of encounters, comprehension and collaboration

In addition to this fundamental need for understanding between archivists and researchers about how a broadcast archive works, a good relationship between the two is useful for another reason. Archivists and historians help each other by contributing stories. Audiovisual archives are full of stories that may interest historians. Conversely, historians often have information, for example from written sources, that may add context and thus enrich audiovisual archive material. As such, archivists and historians can be mutual suppliers of history.

Achieving good relations between archivists and historians is a challenging task. The two seem like natural allies but in practice we often see missed opportunities on both sides. As the global organisation of media archives, with around 60% broadcasters among its members, FIAT/IFTA works actively in this domain.

Within FIAT/IFTA the Media Studies Commission in particular is actively involved in relations between archivists and historians. The core membership is drawn from FIAT/IFTA members, but it is intended that the commission should have an associate membership of those academics and students interested in the use of television archives in all fields of academic study. Currently the group is jointly chaired by Herbert Hayduck, head of Archives at the Austrian public broadcaster ORF, and Dana Mustata, Assistant Professor in Television Studies and Journalism at Groningen University in the Netherlands. The Commission aims to act as a liaison group facilitating academic access to researching television archives and collections, but also as a pressure group, to keep the importance of television archives as historical source material high on the agenda. The group also works as a platform for the international exchange of information and material in relation to archive access and it investigates and promotes the uses of digital technologies in the achievement of these aims.

The two main activities of the Media Studies Commission are the Media Studies Seminars and the Media Studies Grant. The Media Studies Seminars grew out of the Television Studies Seminars that took place in 1999 (Stockholm), 2010 (Paris), 2012 (London) and 2013 (Hilversum). Since the name change in 2016, they have taken place in Paris (2017) and Luxembourg (2019). The aim of the Seminars is always to investigate the connection between television and a historical event and to explore the ways in which archivists and historians can collaborate in their archival and historical research work. In 2017 the events of 1968 were the central topic and in 2019 the Seminar focused on the fall of the Berlin Wall. The presentations often focus on the role that television played in historical events, how these events were presented on television and how they were documented in the archives. Of course, much of the proposed research work is based on television archives material and discussions about access to archival material for research purposes are central to these seminars. Participants in the Media Studies Seminars include not only media researchers working in an academic context, but also television archivists and media professionals. This unique combination leads to particularly fruitful discussions, suggestions for new research topics, and discoveries of new and interesting source materials.

In addition to the Media Studies Seminars, the FIAT/IFTA Media Studies Commission since 2014 awards one or more Media Studies Grants. With this funding scheme FIAT/IFTA annually supports one or more academics in their research at one or more of their member archives. The funds provided cover the research time and travel costs (if applicable) to the relevant archive, as well as the costs associated with presenting the results at the annual FIAT/IFTA World Conference. So far eleven studies have been conducted, presented and published with the support of the Media Studies Grant.

Through these activities FIAT/IFTA tries to actively promote a good relationship between archivists and media scholars, facilitate meetings, promote mutual understanding and encourage collaboration. In this way, we hope that the unique source materials preserved in television archives may enjoy an academic interest proportional to the historical importance of television that this article has taken as a starting point.

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Brecht Declercq is the Digitisation and Acquisition Manager at meemoo in Belgium and the President of FIAT/IFTA, the international association of television archives.


Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.


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