February 22, 2007 7:58 AM PST

Britain throws open rare film archive

The British Film Institute is using a "digital jukebox" to give visitors access to rare film and TV titles at its new London venue.

The Mediatheque at BFI Southbank--due to open next month--will give visitors free access to more than 300 films and TV shows from the BFI National Archive, spanning more than 100 years of moving images.

Clips that can be viewed include Queen Elizabeth II's coronation, the 1966 World Cup final, the first episode of Blue Peter and the first pint pulled in Coronation Street at The Rovers Return.

Hewlett-Packard is providing the technology behind the Mediatheque--17 HP work stations--as part of a two-year partnership with the BFI.

Film director and BFI Chairman Anthony Minghella said: "They are giving us some hardware and some cash, and access to their expertise in digital technology and management."

Minghella said looking after the giant collection is a real challenge--some film has to be kept in freezers because it is so flammable.

He said: "The strategy has been to duplicate and digitize important material, and that's working but it's very costly."

Preserving movies is a process fraught with difficulty. For instance, Minghella said, because nitrate film is flammable, the BFI decided to copy those films onto acetate--but now acetate has turned out to be just as fragile. And choosing any storage medium that might quickly become out of date can be a risk.

"Imagine if our collection was on floppy disk drives or videos," added Minghella.

The BFI hopes to add another 30 digitized titles per month, and there are plans for other centers around the country to access regional film archives.

Steve Ranger of Silicon.com reported from London.

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