Saving the general interest library

Opinion: Mark Leaver of weighs in on the future of archives.
March 1, 2001

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The NASDAQ slides again as the stock markets continue to lick their wounds and look back at 2000 as the year of the dot bomb, a burst bubble of ‘irrational exuberance’. However, behind the pessimistic headlines some key messages are being drowned out.

Last year did not signal the demise of the internet; it merely stripped away the hype, exposing those early adopters whose business models would not have stood up to serious scrutiny had it not been for the exaggerated claims of the end of traditional business as we knew it. The internet is here to stay and will revolutionize the way we communicate (you’re reading this on RealScreen Plus for example) and do certain types of business. If in the 21st century you would like to give a large number of dispersed people access to a mass of searchable information, then the web is the only way forward and it is precisely this strength that archive libraries are waking up to.

Within the ‘Minding your Business’ article in February’s issue of RealScreen, it was commented that it would be nearly impossible to set up a new general interest library. However, this statement only holds true if you are trying to replicate the current library structures. At, [for example,] we have no baggage or traditional rules to abide by and can thus take a more detached view of the needs of our users in the light of new technologies. Research has become an increasingly desk-based job and we therefore provide an instantly accessible resource, allowing the interrogation of a comprehensive and contemporary library. A search on will, as with any internet browser, return the results which closest fit your description – with no human element of interpretation and no attempt to favor the footage of one company over another. It is also possible to view a thumbnail of the material and stream the clip in its entirety.

No matter how hard you try to describe a piece of footage you will never be able to convey as much information as a simple visual reference. There is a great debate at present as to the value of streaming video over the web, and whether the lack of achievable quality due to bandwidth constrictions negates it as a viable means of communication. However, if you are merely using the streamed clip as a reference, then the ability to instantly view a small window on your PC is surely a far superior method to waiting for the delivery of a VHS that may or may not contain the material you require.

Another advantage inherent in the usage of the internet is that it is a global medium, with no boundaries of location or time frame. A site is ‘always on’, accessible 24 hours a day from wherever you happen to be in the world. From the very beginning, has seen itself as an international business, bringing a mass of new material to the global market. Most ‘archive’ footage is not region-specific, and thus will be of equal value to program-makers the world over – a fact which we are not alone amongst libraries in realising.

Technology works, but you have to utilise it in the right way. Events of the last year have shown that there are opportunities for improving traditional businesses using the efficiencies of the internet, but the business model has to stand up on its own in the first place. The ‘world wide web’ started a network for sharing educational information, and despite it’s rapid evolution and massive growth this core function is still key. If you want to provide public access to a mass of information [the internet] is unrivalled as a medium – and the business of the archive library industry has to adapt itself to meet this challenge.

Mark Leaver is the general manager for

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