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Ask the Expert: What impact do film archives have on society?

Sep 6, 2023

In a world where many people can easily capture video using digital devices and save it to the cloud, the preservation of filmed material is often taken for granted. If an event or story is captured on film, it will last forever — right?

Rachael Stoeltje. Photo courtesy of the IU Libraries Moving Image Archive Rachael Stoeltje. Photo courtesy of the IU Libraries Moving Image Archive

In reality, it’s not that simple. Preserving films, whether material or digital, is complicated. But the benefits that film preservation offers society are what drive film archivists across the globe to diligently preserve and digitize our histories.

We asked Rachael Stoeltje, director of the IU Libraries Moving Image Archive and president of the Association of Moving Image Archivists, about the past and present of film archives. Stoeltje —whose recently published book, “Tales From the Vaults: Film Technologies Over the Years and Across Continents,” contains 100 essays from archives across the world and a foreword by filmmaker Christopher Nolan — answers questions about how film archives provide a window to 20th-century history for the public and scholars alike.

Question: How does film archiving benefit society?

Answer: Much of our documented history throughout time is simply lost and gone forever.

This is due to many combined forces including deterioration, lack of perceived cultural value and resources to preserve this material, and the lack of knowledge required to ensure longevity. What archivists bring to the field of film and media archiving is the required knowledge to preserve and provide access to our recorded histories — on film, obsolete video formats and digital media. Film archivists’ goals are to guarantee that our films and media will be around for future generations to see what came before, what influential events occurred and what our culture was like in previous decades.

Carmel Curtis, an archivist with the IU Libraries Moving Image Archive, displays 16mm film strips for visitors to an A Century of 1... Carmel Curtis, an archivist with the IU Libraries Moving Image Archive, displays 16mm film strips for visitors to an "A Century of 16mm" event at the Madam Walker Legacy Center in April 2023. Photo by Liz Kaye, Indiana University

Motion picture film, video tapes and now digital formats are fragile and need constant care, and the archivists’ mission is to preserve and make accessible all this media that is rich in history. As we look back over the history of motion picture film, we note that roughly 85% of all silent films are simply gone, and now we are seeing more and more new media being produced digitally with few efforts in place to migrate the media or check for digital rot. Few filmmakers are aware of the steps required to make sure their films are not gone in the next five to 15 years due to negligence.

We are again at risk of facing a new significant loss in all media being created today that will result in a digital dark age for contemporary films. With archivists’ assistance and guidance, we can stop some of the loss.

Q: Can you share a bit about the history of film archiving? When did it begin, and how has it changed over time?

A: Film archiving is a relatively young profession. As motion picture film began in the 1890s and was originally not seen as culturally valuable, it took some time to build an understanding of how this new medium was important enough to preserve. It was not until the 1930s that we saw the first film archives established.

Since these early years, there have been massive changes to the profession of film archiving, and much of this is due to advances in technologies related to duplicating (digitizing) film and to advances in tools used to provide access to historic, newly digitized media.

Even 30 years ago, I can look back and recall many people in our field competing to acquire a highly sought-after private 16mm film collection that landed here at Indiana University’s Lilly Library. At that time, it was difficult to locate and borrow film titles to project for public and class screenings. This was during an age when VHS tapes might have been the only alternative to film, and VHS tapes were inferior in quality, could not be projected, and the titles had limited availability.

The stacks of the Auxiliary Library Facility at IU Bloomington. Photo by Eric Rudd, Indiana University The stacks of the Auxiliary Library Facility at IU Bloomington. Photo by Eric Rudd, Indiana University

What has changed dramatically in the past few decades is the improved and less costly high-quality digitization methods that have advanced, and the development of access platforms that make so much of our cinematic history available online today. This is a large shift from a time when one had to travel across the country or around the world to film archives to see a film onsite on a flatbed viewer. Today, many archives share collections online.

Of course, the challenge that comes along with progress is that the public and our patrons around the world now expect that everything is digitized, and everything can be accessed online. The costs to house material in climate-controlled environments, digitize obsolete media, store enormously large digital files, properly describe films so they can be found and support online streaming platforms are all indeed significant financial commitments.

Generally, most film archives lack the proper financial support; therefore, only a small percentage of films worldwide are digitized and made available online for viewing. It is a constant struggle to advocate for funding to do this work.

Q: Tell us about the IU Libraries Moving Image Archive. What makes it special, and what resources does it offer students, scholars and the public?

A: The IU Libraries Moving Image Archive is unique in several ways as a film archive. Our archive was formed with the approximately 35,000 film titles that had been distributed and produced by IU through the IU Audio-Visual Center for over a century. These were educational films that were rented by schools, civic groups, YMCAs and professional organizations for decades and used as pedagogical tools, social guidance models for best behavior, professional training manuals and more.

Our films document eras in which, for example, there are government-sponsored films about “What to Do on a Date,” (1951), or issues with “Supervising Women Workers” (1944) from a series called “Problems in Supervision.” IU’s own “Your Daughter at IU” from 1953 is another example of how these films offer a glimpse into the state of our culture at that time and past values regarding gender issues, social expectations and even economic climates.

There are infinite films from the past century held at IU that researchers, students and scholars can explore that were part of this system of educational film distribution.

Q: What are some of the “gems” stored within the IU Moving Image Archive?

A: We founded the archive in 2010 with the core of our holdings made up of the educational films previously held at IU. During the past decade, we have quadrupled the collections and expanded them by acquiring a wide variety of unique holdings.

Some worth noting include the Clio advertising award collection featuring the tens of thousands of advertisements from 1959 through the 1990s that were submitted to be considered for the Clio Awards, which were the “Oscars of advertising.” The Edward and Naomi Feil collection contains educational films, home movie recordings and films of unique historical events like the 1964 World’s Fair.

We now hold a technology collection that includes cameras and projectors from the last century that allow us to teach how films were previously made and projected. There is even a collection from a former local TV news station. We digitized their collection and discovered 1980s coverage of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and Hoosier Ryan White’s experience at that time, offering us a glimpse into the historical global epidemic and how the world responded during those early years.

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Julia Hodson

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