History of Images/Images of History

The Chronilce of Higher Education has an interesting article (subscription required) about the role of libraries and other institutions in using digital technologies to archive film, TV, and video images. The article, by Scott Carlson, focuses primarily on the legal and material challenges that confront the digitization of images, but I think it also implicitly raises some questions about how these new preservation technologies may alter the way that we think about history or the past in general. This entry is mostly summary, a bookmark so that I can return to these ideas later.

Carlson emphasizes the work of William G. Thomas III, director of the Virginia Center for Digital History, to preserve footage of Virginia’s civil-rights movement for public use, with over 250 clips already available online. Currently, the films are listed by date on the website followed by a brief description, and even with a small number of clips, Thomas notes the storage and accessibility issues, observing that “We are really at the beginning stages of how we present, manage, and access video materials.” I think Thomas is absolutely right about that, and at the same time, these questions are going to weigh heavily on what gets “remembered” and how we remember the past (questions I remember contemplating when I attended the Film Love series a few months ago). I am aware, of course, that video archives are not the only means by which we’ll “access” the past. I’m also aware of the limits of any visual archive, especially in terms of how news producers, archivists, and documentarians, for example, choose what is worth recording what is worth preserving (and what isn’t).

As Carlson’s article notes, there are other “access” questions as well, with librarians and preservationists working to determine how to provide access to preserved images without violating copyright laws (digitizing images is also an expensive process, even without copyright costs). The classic example, which Carlson mentions, is the PBS Civil Rights documentary, Eyes on the Prize, which has been withled from release on DVD because of the conflict over the film’s use of copyrighted music and archival footage. Public screenings of the film are illegal, and many existing copies of the film are on VHS, a medium that, like celluloid itself, is well-known for decaying quickly (and even digital formats are not yet standardized, creating other probelms as well).


  1. McChris Said,

    April 28, 2005 @ 12:57 am

    If it helps anyone, here’s a link allowing non-subscribers to read it for free for the next five days. I was a little surprised the story didn’t mention the Prelinger Archives at archive.org, where I’ve been sending my digital media students in search of found footage. There’s some great stuff there; I found this gem on a keyword search for “Texas.”

    I’m currently in the process of applying for an internship doing film preservation at a museum on the east coast. I got interested from the history-of-technology angle, but it’s funny how film has suddenly popped up on my radar again. I’m a digital media guy in a film department, so I think of myself as a “not-film” guy, but, then today, my prof Janet asked if I wanted to TA her film theory class next semester…

  2. Chuck Said,

    April 28, 2005 @ 1:27 pm

    Thanks for the free link, McChris. That clip is just bizarre. Hope you enjoy TAing the film theory class.

    Those definitions “film guy”/”not-film guy” are alsways really complicated. I think so much depends on where you are. As a Brittain Fellow, I’ve felt very much like a “film guy,” but that definition may change soon.

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