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January 3, 2012

Does The Discovery of ‘Lost’ Materials Help Or Harm The Archival Field?

About the only times audiovisual archiving and preservation gets mentioned in the news is when there is a re-release of a newly restored film or album, or when some amazing discovery of a ‘lost’ work is revealed (which is usually tied to the bigger story of its re-release or sale). The auctioning of the early Walt Disney film “Hungry Hobos” and the unveiling of a 1973 David Bowie performance on the BBC are just a couple recent examples. Admittedly, this is probably due at least in part to the fact that lots of archiving work is detail-oriented, quiet, technical, and repetitive at times. These are all just nice ways of saying the work is dull (at least from a news story standpoint). Most people assume that I get to watch/listen to great content all day or ask what things I have unearthed from obscurity. This makes me uncertain about whether the news stories drive their perception or if the news really is just delivering what non-archivists care about. Whatever the case, I typically (over)emphasize to people that I don’t get the opportunity to access the content I work with; it’s all about the physical objects. Boxes and boxes and boxes and shelves and shelves and shelves of objects. And drawers. And pallets. And piles on the floor.

I do have a discovery story, but I don’t really like to refer to it as such. Why? During a summer internship at the NYU Library Preservation Lab, the Tamiment/Wagner Archive received the Communist Party USA papers, a massive collection of paper, memorabilia, film, video, audiotape, and more dating back to the early 20th century. As part of a first pass at ingest, a fellow intern and myself were tapped to go through the films to looks for any major condition problems and get a very high level inventory to help with prioritization. We were excited because there was a lot of 35mm, much of it in old metal shipping containers labeled in Russian. Turns out, though, the CPUSA merely screened or distributed acceptable Soviet films, because reel after reel were prints of Russian history or war epics from the 60s and 70s, sometimes two or three copies of each. It was my first exposure to Orwo filmstock, but I’m not sure if even I am hardcore enough to have gotten really pumped about that.

But there was one particular metal box… There were some others like it, but they hadn’t had anything special in them. But this one stunk real bad-like when we opened it. I tried it first and quickly decided to attack a different box. The other intern tried later, but it was the end of a long, dusty, chemically day…and there was one more non-stinky box left for her. So after I finished what I was working on, I put on the gloves and the mask and said goodbye to my nose hairs and some brain cells. As I started pulling out reels, I noticed that the stench was more complex than a vinegar smell, that what appeared to be rust inside the can was all over the film, and that the solidification and bubbling gunk I could see through the projection reels was not typical behavior of acetate from the 1970s, whether the East Germans had made it or not. Nope, this was nitrate, and luckily most of the reels were heads out with the title cards for the reel visible. Passaic Textile Strike Reel 2. Passaic Textile Strike Reel 4. Passaic Textile Strike Reel 5. And so on.

After the nitrate excitement died down, my colleague began searching for the title online and found that the Library of Congress had a print, but two reels were considered lost, including reel 5. Things moved fast after that. Somebody called a contact at LOC. The head of the department and the Tamiment archivist were called in. We had to find someone with nitrate shipping certification. And soon the films were out the door to LOC. They were pretty seriously decayed, but that’s where all that slow, detailed, technical (dull) work comes in to play to do the restoration work.

*****

Exciting stuff, but not ‘my’ or ‘a’ discovery. There were a lot of people involved in the overall process, and I was just the one to physically pull the reels out of the box and look at them. Also, the film was not truly lost or discovered. It was sitting there in a box, not caring one way or the other. It couldn’t be lost because no one was missing it. Anyone at anytime could have peeked in the box and wondered what was on those reels.

In fact, it should have been someone else. If an organization or an archive truly cares about the materials they create or collect, if they care about the investments made in creating and storing those materials, if they care about the longevity of their organization and fulfillment of organizational goals then, plain and simple, they should take care of their stuff. #tcys and whatnot.

To be clear, I’m not picking on archives here — this diatribe refers to the whole enterprise. Either you have pride in your work or you don’t, and that institutional attitude or support for it starts at the top. This doesn’t mean that the organization absolutely must care about those assets, but to market them based on quality of the content/materials or the institution’s history/dedication would seem to require a certain degree of commitment to those expressed ideals in order to retain any level of validity.

*****

And that, my friends, is polemics (I minored in it in college). Do you agree in total? Do you reject it outright? Do you agree in principle but not in practical reality? I’d like to know, but, I feel, save for the derailment, the gauge of my original track is true. ‘Lost’ films are not the result of inevitability (unless you believe that humans will inevitably mess things up), but are lost through our own decisions at action or inaction. The celebration of their discovery turns irresponsible behavior into an applauded activity. This approval, and subsequent social/monetary benefit, promotes hoarding, negligence, and other high risk behaviors enabled by the belief that 1) the ultimate payoff will be great and 2) the material will always be recoverable.

One has to assume that, given human and corporate nature, the potential for benign neglect as a preservation strategy would become the default position in most cases. After one assumes that, one has to ask, has the line between benign and malignant ever been sufficiently delineated so as to ensure that action occurs before it is crossed, and what extra cost is incurred if that line is ignored, despite the potential capability of recovering the content? Perhaps, in this arena, we need to better document our less direct failures and losses in order to counter the distracting jubilation of films grasped from the ravages of decay, to fully delineate the real costs and risks so that we take care of our stuff in the first place or accept the decision not to.

Joshua Ranger

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Comments

  1. Jennifer says:

    I agree with your position that “lost” is truly a result of our own decision or inaction. Certainly, creators, curators, archivists have a role in this. A proper assessment of the collection up front (instead of wide-arm sweep) is a much safer acquisition technique. But, curators and archivists can’t ID everything at the point of acquisition. And because preservation suspected the collection had nitrate somewhere in it, this collection was prioritized for processing (as I have been told by those that were there). That is a simple reality of collecting, collection management, and the influence of preservation practice.

    • Josh says:

      Jennifer, I hope that starting the post with my personal experience didn’t imply any poor actions on Tam/Wag’s front. They certainly did the correct thing in prioritizing pieces of the collection to look over for any major issues (nitrate, mold, severe decay, etc.) or for works of immediate importance prior to more comprehensive processing. If anything I was (perhaps too mildly) mocking my own pretentions at Indiana Jones-like grandiosity in unearthing a fantastical discovery. I was just the Alfred Molina character trying to swipe the golden idol.

      You bring up a good point that there is a great difference between acquired collections and collections that are created within the organization. As archivists we have to figure out ways of dealing with unorganized, unlabeled, unwieldy collections that show up on the loading dock. Finding those high risk or high value items becomes a way of promoting the collection and gaining funding for less glamorous work that needs to be done, but I wonder if that can be a double-edged sword against addressing backlogs or “minor” collections. Does the need for home runs every time out distract from the importance (or funding need) of on-base percentage and singles? And what happens to the concept of bottom-up history if we’re forced into always looking for the elite?

  2. Snowden says:

    Josh, thanks for a thought-provoking post, which I’m forwarding to my Archival Administration students as required reading for this week! I’ve been on several sides of this more-than-two-sided issue–I’ve made discoveries of unique and interesting material that survived thanks to benign neglect, but I’ve chucked out just as many reels that were tantalizingly labeled and utterly unsalvageable. I’ve also worked with collectors whose enjoyment of their accumulated material is deep and genuine and lasts for just as long as their films can be run through a projector without getting trashed–which doesn’t make them enemies of preservation, since they’ve often plucked those reels from dumpsters or at estate sales and given them a couple extra years of life as appreciated cinema, not abandoned object. And Home Movie Day events always turn up a couple reels we have to hand back with an apology while other participants are enjoying their own (forgotten about for an equally long time) family footage in all its Kodachrome glory. Good press for preservation wins is nice, but hype is a problem–and the line between them is awfully wobbly, too.

    • Josh says:

      Thanks for the feedback, Snowden, though I’m not so sure your students will be thanking you when you force them to read my drivel. But if required reading is my only way to get people to read my blog, I’ll take it very kindly. You’re right that it is a multi-sided issue without an easy side to take. We certainly advocate strongly for promotion and, er, advocacy, but at the same time I greatly mistrust the creation of unrealistic expectations, either through an Antiques Roadshow-ification of things that pumps up dreams of monetary value or an explicit focus on restoration successes that make it seem like anything can be salvaged. The lab and transfer technicians out there do some pretty amazing work, but sometimes a hockey puck is just a hockey puck.

      I also agree that the enjoyment of materials does not make those collectors enemies of preservation. In my personal life I prefer to limit acquisition/collecting to things I will use regularly. But where that attitude (among many other attitudes) converges with institutional or professional concepts of what preservation means or requires is a question it feels like we’re still grappling with. Our field touches many different areas and professions with different concerns and approaches — how do we manage those multiplicities without veering off into the politics of personal affront?

  3. Ariel says:

    I am one of Snowden’s students, actually, and I was quite interested in this article! I think you make some very salient points about how the non-archival world tends to see our field ( vis-a-vis the “celebrated” items like the Bowie works, etc) and I’m definitely in concert with your comments on the ideologies around a weird kind of celebratory dance around items that we really should have, perhaps, not lost in the first place. Of course, every case is different, and so is each archive.
    Economic pressure clearly puts a strain on already overworked archives making it so we need “big scores” for funding, etc., but I think perhaps it may be time to renegotiate attitudes towards what we work on and try to make ourselves look fancy *because we work hard* and do great things within that work instead of “knockin’ it outta there” every time. If that is even a possibility.

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