Rethinking Media Archivism
Interfaces, Access & Scholarly Practices
International workshop, November 10-11, 2010, National Library of Sweden
Once upon time, film scholars haunted archives and libraries in search of tangible source material. Only in the 1980’s, did scholarly interest in this area of study start gravitating towards archives, concurrent the surge of video culture and new festival venues. Students of film today often believe that “everything” is available on the Web and, thus, can be “googled”. If not “there”—it doesn’t exist.
In such an ideal world, cultural heritage and contemporary mass culture are well co-mingled and one can merrily shop around on the laptop, iPhone or Blackbery, save time, download primary and secondary material (legally or otherwise), and leave archives and libraries behind. Or can we? Is Web-archivism merely a publicity stunt which does a disservice to new media cinema studies if it encourages scholars to bypass “real” archives? Or does digital archiving, as an appetizer of sorts, prompt students to explore material in old-school archives? And does a focus on the Web within archives divert funding from urgent, but less glamorous needs, such as preserving cellulose nitrate film?
Neil Pardington, Film Archive #4, The New Zealand Film Archive Nga Kaitiaki o Ngai Taonga Whitiahua, 2006. Courtesy Suite, Wellington
If one were to change perspective and focus on the benefits of modern advances in the field, it is now possible to navigate vast archival collections previously beyond reach due to their sheer size. Such digital opportunities extend scholarship in new directions often in partnership with archives. Google’s vast collection of digitized books is one example, as is the recent Digging into Data Challenge. The archival mode of online media is also apparent in open APIs and in the P2P-networks (the major media collections on the Web), as well as in new archival formats where media material is presented as infinitive. ”Making the unmissable unmissable,” as BBC’s iPlayer puts it.
The new digital domain comes with infinite shelf space and unlimited access, if one decides to ignore copyright and commercial interest. Archives and libraries are by nature “slow” organizations. If they insist on the importance of traditional archival missions and do not use on-line access as the new default standard for archival practices, will they be rendered less pertinent? Or is such an assumption false? Is the digital domain more a devastating threat rather than an inspiring challenge to the heritage sector? Since resources and funding are always limited, will access, for political reasons, be the new guiding principle in the future—rather than preservation?
Academia has often operated on a cost-efficiency principle and shied away from too much extraneous material in order to save time writing up the material at hand. Publish or perish. On many campuses, one is currently hard pressed to find a microfilm reader, for example. The ranks of diehard researchers bent on culling information in newspapers outside that which has been “proquested” or transferred by other corporations or institutions are thinning. Why waist Sitzfleisch on scouring for information in analogue form, in say New York Herald, when you can pick up information from New York Times in a jiffy on the Web, provided that your university or library has paid the licensing fee for access. The principle that “no scholar left behind” has not been institutionalized and many thus remain vulnerable to the whims of outside commercial interests. Furthermore, no longer does access to digital bits have to take place in proximity to the “original.” Numerous libraries and archives have shifted their “user focus” from the regional to the global. Still you often need an access code or pass word, which in turn presupposes a proper identity. In the era when crossing borders is a highly contested matter, are “we” building academic walls that makes it more difficult for “outsiders” to benefit from digital resources? And how long will English survive as the digital lingua franca?
Walter Benjamin drew a distinction between collectors and historians. Private collections, once a domain reserved for books, music on vinyl records and ephemera, have expanded to include films and television programs in many formats from 16mm to Blue-ray. The more famous private collections used to end up in libraries and archives, more or less in full. Fans have also documented favourite stars in scrapbooks, as well as collected ephemera—and many screen personalities have themselves gathered material pertaining to their careers, thus building archives of sorts. Media scholars have increasingly turned their attention to these types of collections in addition to more institutional ones. In this process, it is tricky to have a clear-cut conception of what constitutes an archive or a library. As we slide deeper into the digital era, scholars and keepers of archives have had a tendency to give preference to a digital form divested of its original materiality, for better or for worse.
There is no dearth of reasons why heritage institutions have gone digital. The implications for archivism and scholarship are indeed complex and important to discuss – and will, hence, serve as points of departure for this workshop. Academia and archivism have become inextricably intertwined. Cataloguing, once the mainstay of archiving, has been transformed into a process of data exchange between the holders of material and small and big businesses with vested interests. In certain realms, data can be found easily, as it is widely disseminated; in others, institutions, including a number of film archives, can operate with more or less secret catalogs.
We have identified some of the key issues for using both old and new types of collections. A select group of scholars—well-versed in the world of archivism—have been invited as keynote speakers to take stock of the past, present, and future media scholarship and its interfaces to archivism.