Leading Lights - Roly Keating

In anticipation of 2024: The Future Of Television, a new collection of essays set to be published on February 27th, we look back on some of the articles that made up Leading Lights: Imagination and Creativity in Television and Beyond which was published last year. We begin with Roly Keating, the CEO of the British Library.

Roly Keating, The CEO of the British Library argues that digital has melted the boundaries between institutions and that great creative opportunities lie in the converging digital environment. Just as the British Library faces the question ''Is the printed book dead?', TV faces the challenge of creative channel-building and scheduling when audiences have real-time, curated, selected and creative choices via the internet. This essay outlines the challenges but enthusiastically embraces the opportunities.

Why should an institution like the British Library be run by someone with a background in media? Could it be a sign of how far digital has melted the boundaries between institutions? The BBC is a great repository of national memory and content and in that sense there's a direct read-across to the aspirations of an institution like the British Library. The Library exists to collect, preserve and give access to the combined accumulated national memory of published content, recorded sound and the whole creative and intellectual heritage of the UK. It aims to serve multiple audiences at once: the research community, education, and higher education; it's there to serve business, to allow people to have new ideas, and to find a spark that conjures something new. It's there, of course, for you and me as citizen researchers or writers, to find out that crucial piece of information we need or to do some historical research to stimulate a screenplay or a novel. The British Library has a public programme of exhibitions, events, talks and web exhibitions that, not unlike the best TV, aim to be about inspiration, enjoyment and stimulation.

The digital environment has changed the boundaries within broadcasting. Television has faced an exploding opportunity around expanded multichannel linear broadcasting. The great first wave of multichannel innovation was driven by broadcasters seeing a chance to move broadcasting from something deeply landlocked by analogue broadcasting to something that could offer multiple streams. For UKTV in particular the aim was to make more of the core creativity of the industry and BBC programme-making talent. UKTV offered a chance to make new things, whether they were brand new formats or extended versions of current shows. The spirit of using a digital opportunity to provide a burst of channelled creativity was at the heart of the venture and we're seeing it today, with a new tranche of originated programmes.

What has changed recently for digital television is the growth of the internet. Instead of the web being something profoundly separate to television with different sets of consumption habits, it's moving with the grain of broadcasting. TV faces the challenge of a new kind of creative channel-building and scheduling happening in front of our eyes. The live viewing experience is beginning to offer audiences real-time, curated, selected and creative choices via the internet.

We need to understand what collecting, storage and preservation mean in the digital age.

The British Library has similar challenges. We have to manage the transition from a largely physical institution concerned with interaction with real objects, and become a great digital institution looking forward to this century and the next. We need to understand what collecting, storage and preservation mean in the digital age. We are reinterpreting the task of being a curator for an audience who rely almost entirely on digital material in the form of eJournals or datasets. We have a growing curatorial team with digital scholarship who work with collections which have a natural relationship to digital, such as our audio collection. There are many other opportunities.

The British Library has historic map collections and we collect the very latest maps, many of which are digital. Our latest geo-referencing project published historic maps onto the web and invited people to georeference them against modern maps. So we can identify the data hidden in these historic maps against the digital map record. It has been a great contribution to research and an exciting collaborative project for people in the UK and around the world.

There are huge challenges in rethinking the roles of an institution like the British Library, but also many opportunities. The digital age is full of creative potential people can find what they want quickly, which frees up energies to go even deeper with their research. The library is one of those very old words that is turning out to have valuable new meanings. Creative curatorial library skills like indexing, cataloging, giving access, and helping people find the material they need at the right time, turn out to be exactly the disciplines that are driving the global information economy. These skills underpin the business model of Amazon or Apple or Google. This is why great memory institutions are partnering with digital organisations. Google is the British Library's partner in the digitisation of a quarter of a million of our 18th and 19th century books. We are increasing access but we're also enabling new forms of research. People can now explore a whole corpus of work as a dataset as well as atomise bits of literature.

The British Library holds the national newspapers collection. We have a partnership with brightsolid, the digital company behind Find My Past. They have expertise in high-volume digitisation of material that interests family historians. They have become the British Library's partner in digitising out-of-copyright or pre-1900 newspaper holdings of the British Library, and hence of the nation. The material becomes a resource for study in the reading rooms here, but also is available on the open web as a paid for service delivered by brightsolid for a ten-year period. brightsolid have a creative business model that funds the project and the public gets benefit in the form of a digitised collection.

Once historic newspapers become digital then you can turn them into text and the text can be searched. You or I can now go into that body of material and hunt out our village, our family, or whatever our obsession might be. And who knows what other connections grow from this? It is not an accident that we're working with a partner which has also worked with UKTV because increasingly the edges between media or sector are reshaping and dissolving. Audiences may be inspired by a television programme to go on a journey of research or discovery and rapidly find they are moving into the domain of what was historically called a library.

It is not an accident that we're working with a partner which has also worked with UKTV

The British Library sits at the intersection of many different industries. New ways of thinking are sparked by different industries coming together, by people from a broadcast background seeing the opportunity in digitised historic artefacts or people from a business background finding deep sources of information. I think that this is creativity in its purist form, it is a visible spark of innovation happening because people have been exposed to something new.

Print is not dead. In sheer volume, both newspapers and print books seem to be riding high, but audience habits are changing in front of our eyes. My daughter flits effortlessly between buying books on her Kindle and working her way through a paperback and likes both in different moods. In our lifetime we will undoubtedly enjoy a sea of print materials but it'll also be our privilege to live through some form of revolution of blended media, with people being amphibious, switching back and forth between print and digital. There's an analogy with television here. Linear scheduling hasn't disappeared under pressure of on-demand services. It has just had to raise its game. And we may even see the same for print and paper: rather than disappearing, the specialness and quality and power of print will be proving itself in new way. But where print existed purely to deliver bald prose or information, digital does a better job. We will see digital as the best medium for learned journals or scientific research where the need to disseminate and discuss and explore research quickly is important.

When I first joined the British Library I was struck by what an irrepressibly creative organisation it is. The curators here are working day-in, day-out with the collections to find new creative opportunities. Often that appears in the form of an exhibition such as Murder in the Library - our A-Z of Crime Fiction or our major exhibition of Mughal India through manuscripts and paintings. If you look at the users of the Library, you can palpably feel the creativity rising up out of the reading rooms and the cafes. It is a public space where people come in order to have new ideas, to test a theory, to research a new story or novel, and so we're here not just to be creative but to serve creativity. In the digital age the characteristic scene is someone with their laptop using the Library's digital resources and wanting the environment of concentrated creativity that a great national library can provide.

Top Tips for Creativity from the British Library

  • Re-interpret your tasks from physical to digital
  • Be amphibious: switch back and forth between print and digital
  • Collaborate with others in the digital search for data
  • If you find what you want quickly, spend time searching in more depth
  • Look for a spark to conjure something new

Roly Keating, Chief Executive of the British Library, began his career in television, where he was described as one of the BBC's 'greatest cultural heavyweights'. His career began as a producer and director in Music and Arts programming, before moving on to run BBC Four and BBC Two. In 1997 Roly was Head of Programming for UKTV, overseeing the launch of the BBC's joint venture channels. He went on to become BBC Controller of Digital Channels and run the Digital Archive, where he was overall editorial leader for the BBC's online services, including BBC iPlayer.


To read all of the Leading Lights articles, including those by Martha Lane Fox, Ed Vaizey and Michel Roux Jr, click here.