March 10, 2011

Survival Through Touching

I’m an archivist of what I call ephemeral films — films made for specific purposes at specific times, not intended for posterity. These include industrial and advertising films, home movies, and the occasional educational film. A few weeks ago, I drove down to Hollywood to move some film into our cold storage vault. Since we don’t have a state-of-the-art film storage facility in the Bay Area, our collection is split between north and south, and so I join the I-5 traffic flow every few months.

As in most film vaults, more cans enter than leave. This is true of archives in general — it’s a lot easier to collect physical documents and media than it is to make them accessible. As I moved cans of other peoples’ historical home movies out of the car and onto the shelves, I was struck by all of the fascinating and potentially useful imagery that was sitting idle, waiting for someone to use it — or, perhaps more accurately, waiting for us to make it accessible. And I was thinking about the work of enabling access, and about how difficult it is to find ways to resurface historical material so that it can make its way from the amnesic periphery into the center.

While the storage areas are very cold and dry, the work areas are temperate and comfortable, and the management kindly furnishes everything you might possibly need to maintain your collection. It’s a nice place to sit and think about the future of archives and cultural materials, here in the core of a building surrounded by hundreds of thousands of films and tapes. But disturbing thoughts keep intervening. Most of the images in this building will never be seen. There isn’t an audience large enough, nor a production/distribution pipeline fat enough, to get them out to the world.

When we manage to bring archival stuff into the public eye, we typically do it one work at a time. Back in the 1980s I discovered what I think was the only extant print of GIVE YOURSELF THE GREEN LIGHT, a fascinating piece of persuasion made in 1954 for General Motors to garner public support for the Federal Aid-Highway Act, the law enabling the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways. The film’s full of fascinating images (including shots of the now-gone San Francisco produce market district, demolished to make way for the Golden Gateway Center, and a sequence where cars in rush-hour traffic morph into a herd of sheep). The print was made for projection, so it’s two generations removed from the original and looks a little fuzzy. But since it’s a really great film, we sold stock footage from it for years, and in 2000 put it online at Internet Archive for free download and reuse. Late last year the original Kodachrome material — the film that actually moved through the cameras in 1954 — turned up in a collection from a defunct lab, and I bought it. The original is beautiful, and the details of 1950s highways, traffic jams, cities and freeways under construction are completely amazing. The value of this film is in the evidence it contains, and the evidence is visible in all its glory. You Are There. Now people can reconstruct this pivotal moment using material that looks as if it could have been shot yesterday. But how many will ever try to do this, and in our low-res age, how many really care?

There’s a dramatic discrepancy between how much of the historical record is extant and how much of it is actually used. Of course, this is an issue common to all archives and libraries. Late last year Cornell University found that 55% of the print monographs in their library system had never circulated.  Our own library has a labor history section that’s very rarely used, which we wish weren’t the case. And I love to look at our online film archives and see the least-viewed films: as of this morning, our 1930 film on the Fresno Raisin Festival is at chart bottom with 187 views. I’m curious how to crack this problem, and I can’t help thinking that we’re shying from a solution. It could involve conceding our exclusivity and letting materials flow from the archives into the world, perhaps putting high-quality copies online without a clear sense of what the outcome might be. Or perhaps it’s adopting a more nuanced and potentially contradictory set of ethics and procedures around original archival materials.

Our archival activities principally involve collecting and working with home movies, and we look at them quite often in the living room. While most home movies document family activities in predictable situations (opening Christmas presents, waterskiing on the lake, watching toddlers navigate the front porch steps), they also present an astonishing diversity of events, situations and places. I’m certain that, sooner or later, almost every possible human situation was photographed, and I look forward to finding it as our collection grows. And the more I watch, I am convinced that there’s a film for every viewer and a viewer for every film, not to mention all the people that might like to reuse it, if only you could connect them. How can we do this? Will it ever happen? It’s these moments when the limits of accessibility (even for highly pro-access people like me) seem most Draconian. And consequently this got me wondering whether we could actually go farther, and do with an archival collection what we presently do with our print-based library: offer hands-on access to film that might not yet be digitized or preserved.

Right now this is anathema to just about all archivists, and it’s easy to see why: the cardinal mission of archives is to preserve historical documents in perpetuity, and preserving a document (or a film) means that you don’t handle the original item more than is absolutely necessary. Film is fragile, and it can be temperamental; it scratches, warps, deteriorates. It needs to be kept cool and dry to stave off various chemical decomposition processes. Archival protocols developed over a long time safeguard material and sequester it from potentially damaging hands. You don’t put original film through projectors if you can avoid it; you don’t expose unique archival material to risks that might cause damage. Doing these things violates archival ethics as most archivists understand them.

But ethics are starting to collide with reality. Many archives are choked with film and tape; many won’t accept new collections. Digital archival initiatives are mostly new, and by necessity embrace specialization; even Google and Internet Archive can collect only small shards of the sprawling net. And as we become increasingly concerned about collecting and stabilizing ephemeral digital materials, we’ll be less focused on working with the annoying analog stuff. I think the analog backlog will largely fester and stagnate, with certain conspicuous exceptions, and access will stagnate along with it. Of course, some institutions and perhaps motivated individuals will continue to preserve film and reformat tape, but this is artisanal, skilled and expensive work, and I can’t imagine that we’ll ever have the funds to do it on a systematic level. Throughout all this, archives will continue to grow and collect material that can’t be touched because it’s fragile, original or unpreserved. And as collections begin to grow out of control, the goal of perpetual stewardship becomes devilishly harder to pursue. Inaccessibility sends cultural materials into liminality; huge sections of our cultural heritage already reside in the shadows, unattainable.

Over the past decade and a half, we’ve collectively developed a kind of workaround, which is digitization. Digitizing unique and fragile documents or artworks can make surrogate copies available as widely as we want them to be without posing risks to originals. Millions of books have been scanned, though most of them aren’t fully readable or accessible due to copyright or other restrictions. Many works of art have been digitized at high quality, but again, many are kept from unobstructed public view. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of analog film and video works and clips are available online, but very few online files are of good quality. Despite all of the caveats, though, many works have indeed been digitized and are viewable in some form, if not good enough to be used in new works.

Digitization is a tremendously expensive process. Even though prices will drop, I don’t believe it will be feasible to digitize everything. I think we’re going to be faced with masses of physical materials that sit idly on shelves and in boxes. Sooner or later there will be pressure to deaccession this stuff, and it won’t be pretty. Rightly or wrongly (and the arguments are indeed complex), public, academic and institutional libraries have weeded millions of books in the last generation. Many more will disappear from the shelves as digital books become more widely available. The same fiscal pressures and changes in the modes of cultural perception that made library deaccessioning possible are already affecting archives and museums, two historically different kinds of institutions whose practice and missions are beginning to converge.

So what if we redefined our sense of archival and museum ethics, and found ways to welcome users into staff-only areas and let them work directly with materials? What if the fan or the scholar interested in a research topic or a collection received some minimal training, and became the person who processed it, rather than having to wait until funding and staff time became available? What if we acknowledged what I believe is inevitable — that unless archives and museums suddenly stop collecting, the accumulated mass of physical materials in our cultural institutions will ultimately exceed our ability to manage it? Obviously there would be limits to the use of certain kinds of material, in the same way that there might be limits to certain kinds of use. But if we’re really collecting for the long haul, it might be helpful to understand that some actions we think leave a deep footprint may actually tread more lightly.

In short, what if we embraced hospitality and touch as attributes of modern cultural repositories? Can we actually let users touch unique materials? Can we enable participation not only in the exhibition rooms and galleries, but in the back rooms? We can say no, or we can try to engineer ways to make this possible. Hands-on access to cultural materials, plus the encouragement of tranformative appropriation turns institutions from hermetic repositories into workshops and places of production, a change that I think will be essential to institutional survival.

Let’s let the public into the back of our archives, museums and libraries, and see what happens.

Comments (8)

  • Chris Cobb says:

    Longing, and letting go.

  • I think this is a great argument for a very simple concept of a bottom-up instead of top-down approach to archiving, access, and preservation. Without touch and the hand of a collector, most archives would not have gained critical material mass in the first place, and would lack the influence of the conscientious curator who initially decides what the character of the collection would be, and subsequently what additional items would fit into it. Once the collection has formed physically, it provides different meaning to every user, and its richness and depth is fleshed out through description, whether by a professional cataloger or researchers looking for evidence or histories that don’t seem to exist until someone stumbles across them. Collections that allow access are guaranteed some measure of depth and worth to society; as Rick notes, “a film for every viewer and a viewer for every film,” which is enhanced by Storycorps’ motto, “listening is an act of love.” The unnecessary challenge of a top-down archiving model presents analog collections as a really big tree falling in the woods. Why hold on to items if no one is there to hear them? How do we even know certain items in our collection are valuable until someone comes and points out their value?

    In our archive, we wouldn’t survive without the work of interns and volunteers. This is the case for many libraries, archives, and museums, and puts the information professional in the position of a teacher and a guide instead of a gatekeeper. Even in best-case-scenario, well-staffed organizations and institutions who pay a living wage, researchers, volunteers and, as David Rowntree mentioned, aging folks who want to interact with archives, are a fantastic resource and keep community mobilized around materials to make collections relevant. As we integrate community into our work, teaching users careful handling and basic skills becomes a part of the culture of not only libraries and museums, but archives as well. In my work, I enjoy encouraging hesitant interns (who often have a reverence for the “aura” of physical items with which they come into contact) to engage with materials once they are trained to do so.

    On a practical note, creating systems and programs for training visitors, digitizing or restricting use of extremely fragile materials seems like common sense, completely realistic and useful concept. For many large organizations and institutions, this is a big step, but it’s completely possible if it is made a priority. As someone who was born into American empire after its peak, sorting through, recycling, exploring and reusing the forgotten and discarded elements of our materialistic society seems perfectly logical and natural.

    Thanks so much for your post Rick, and I loved reading everyone’s comments here.

  • The image that came to me as I was imagining this vast collection of film was of a ship sailing on benighted waters – and as an artist this makes me appreciate the struggle to understand the “lay of the land” when there’s far too much to see, when it isn’t possible to get a comprehensive view. It’s scary to think how random our formative experiences have been, but also reassuring that we have an internal compass to guide us toward a more generous life.

  • A personal story: Invited to look at an inspiring old document by a friend, I reach out to touch it and leave a visible mark. Suddenly, I notice the awful irreversibility of time. Can’t I rewind and take the stain off the page? Nope. The friend, kindly: “things acquire traces of their uses.” I think that spirit of appreciation, your awareness that the damage done to archival materials accessed by the public is also an addition, is at the heart of this post. (Still…. of course… from now on I wash my hands.)

  • Rick, Thanks for your thoughts and call to action (or at least getting us to thinking about taking some new action). From my experience of managing archives within larger entities you are often beholden to the policies of the parent institution (universities in my case). Sadly, university policy did not allow us to have volunteers for liability reasons. In fact, we could not have anyone other than a student or affiliated with the university. As such, at least in the short-term I see your proposition working for stand-alone or semi-autonomous archival institutions.

    The question about allowing researchers and users into the back rooms is certainly provocative and will raise protests. ONe consideration that cannot be overlooked is that managing volunteers/users in this capacity will be time-consuming, it cant just happen without a change of role in archival staff. Security is also an additional issue. Unfortunately things occasionally go missing when doors are opened wide – with rare or valued collections it seems this approach will not be accepted.

    Despite these protestations I generally agree with you that a radical new approach needs to occur to make more materials both accessible but also findable. I fear that merely digitizing and putting something online people believe this is providing access. It must be findable. Is the low use of certain materials a partly the result of poor description/cataloging?

    As libraries struggle to redefine themselves in the digital world and are consumed around questions of licensing the same books and journals, etc. Archives should be thrust into the spotlight. They are often largely made up of unique, primary source materials that exist no where else. Their content has always been valued as the engine behind new research, scholarship, and education and should drive new media productions and scholarly communication.

    I also agree with you that there are masses of information that we will not digitize. However, I also believe that not everything needs or deserves the effort and expense to “survive” in a digital form. If we agree that we will not be able to digitize “everything” we must recognize the need to select. Despite protestations of “we have no right” the mere act of digitizing something is a subjective decision – one work has been chosen before another. I believe that there is an absence of discussion about what is being digitized. Who’s history? Who’s voices? In what order? What are we missing? Will our digitized histories be representative and relevant to our changing demographics 10 years from now?

    The Center for the Future of Museums in a recent report proposed two considerations that I feel are important to note and can be transplanted to archives or cultural institutions in general (particularly in the US). The first might actually be applicable to some of your propositions.

    1. With the aging population remaining more interested in continuing some form of work later in life museums/archives can position themselves as places of choice for this group. 2. Demographic shifts means that our archives must be relevant to the new multi-ethnic society both as users and supporters. It’s safe to assume that they will looking to use online resources, be voting on local, state, and federal funding and we will be looking to cultivate new relationships of potential donors.

    David Rowntree

  • Sunny Stalter says:

    This is a really interesting and thoughtful piece. One thing that I wonder about is the cost to the visitor. I would love to be involved in crowdsourced processing, tagging, and viewing of archival materials, but the cost of coming to SF to do so would be prohibitive without outside funding. I think that opening up the archives would work as part of a structured program, possibly with fellowships that would cost less than the usual processing fees and would train people to do the kind of artisanal work that you discuss (or at least the brute force elements). Do you know about the Yiddish Book Center’s program for processing and documenting their archival materials? It involves a lot of manual labor, but it’s felt to be a necessary part of cultural preservation.

  • Hi Rick – Many thanks for sharing! One solution to the problem you raise regarding the “discrepancy between how much of the historical record is extant and how much of it is actually used” is that it should be easy to provide meaningful access routes to collections. Needless to say, digitisation is extremely helpful here. Once digital and part of an open network, cultural artifacts can be shared, recommended, remixed, mashed, embedded, cited, referenced to etc. etc. Here lies to key to raise interest for even the most obscure piece of ephemeral film.
    Mass digitization is costly. Governments have a responsibility to invest in durable access (through digital preservation) of the national historical record. Provided the terms are transparent and beneficial to all stakeholders, public-private partnerships can be a good way to fund mass digitization as well. Other coordinated, but more grassroots practices include initiatives such as the International Amateur Scanning League and Musopen [1].
    The question indeed remains whether the entire ‘analogue backlog’ of archives holdings can ever be digitized though these efforts. There is a massive body of content out there. You propose to open up the archive spaces for ‘hands-on access’ by end users, and to transform them into workshops and places of production. It’s a great vision. I’m sure that we can benefit from the enthusiasm of our end-users in key areas of the so called digital content life cycle [2] around which many archives are organised. For instance, to invite user to assist in the selection, cataloguing, contextualization and curation of our collections. These activities can be carried out by end-users remotely and can certainly reduce operational costs of archives.* Hence, these so-called crowdsourcing initiatives might be a way to free up resources to pay for digitization. And, as funding of many heritage organizations is (and IMHO should be) based on their societal impact, these initiatives will be of growing importance also from a managerial/PR perspective. Please note, I think the act of digitizing an analogue object requires training and expert knowledge of specialized pieces of hardware and is and will be best executed by professionals – also in the age of cognitive surplus [3] that manifests itself today.
    In any case, it is really important we start to explore these fundamentally new ways of interaction between archives and their users. Identifying the mutual benefits for all stakeholders is an important starting point.
    A final note: our colleagues in the library domain are also redefining their place under the stars. This recent blog post [4] also explores at the idea of reinventing the library as a workshop.
    Looking forward to read everyone’s comments!

    Best wishes from Amsterdam,
    Johan Oomen


    * Needless to say, we also need to think about the ‘total cost of ownership’ of the collection once it’s digitized (not to mention copyrights).

  • pam martin says:

    “Hospitality, touch and transformative appropriation…. turning hermetic repositories into workshops..”
    Thank you for these inspiring thoughts.

See all responses (8)
Leave a comment

Please tell us what you think. We really love conversation, and we’re happy to entertain dissenting opinions. Just no name-calling, personal attacks, slurs, threats, spam, and the like, please. Those ones we reserve the right to remove.

Sign Up

Join our newsletter for infrequent updates on new posts and Open Space events.
  • Required, will not be published

Dear Visitor,
We regret to inform you that Open Space is no longer active. It was retired at the end of 2021. We sincerely appreciate your support and engagement over the years.

For your reference, we encourage you to read past entries or search the site.

To stay informed about future ventures or updates, please follow us at

Thank you for being a part of our journey!