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Points of Origin: Discovering Ourselves through Access

From: The Moving Image
Volume 9, Number 2, Fall 2009
pp. 164-175 | 10.1353/mov.2010.0005

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Points of Origin
Discovering Ourselves through Access

Just as librarians promote the use of books, and as teachers defend before the public the value of education, so archivists have as a part of their duty to give stimulus and guidance to the use of archives, and to their use not by the few but by the many. The objective of archival policy in a democratic country cannot be the mere saving of paper; it must be nothing less than the enriching of the complete historical consciousness of the people as a whole. … [T]he archivist is and ought to be concerned with the most distant futures, and less than any other professional man in the country can he afford to be hesitant in defining long-term objectives.

—Robert C. Binkley, 1939

Unsaid and Undone

So much has been said and written about archival access that another article seems almost superfluous. And yet, as we tiptoe toward opening our collections to a world of ready eyes and eager makers, much remains unsaid and even more undone. As a longtime advocate of broadly expanded access to moving image collections, I continue to be struck by the divergence between our theoretical acceptance of access as a goal and the poor state of access that actually reigns. While expanding access has become a relatively uncontroversial objective, its implementation is roadblocked by constraint, uncertainty, and ambivalence.

Archivists labor in a field where critique isn't necessarily tied to remediation. While many archivists, scholars, and moving image users have remarked on the difficulties of archival access, few have moved beyond complaint to advocacy. Quite a number of archivists, librarians, and curators have contributed significantly to an evolving discourse of access (in the moving image field, I must especially note the contributions of emerging archivists and archival students). Regrettably, few innovators hold decision-making positions in their institutions, and breadth of vision does not guarantee change: most archivists lack fiscal authority to fund proverbial "bold, new initiatives." There is little incentive to question rules, traditions, and hierarchies and become advocates for change. Even more disappointing, calls for greater openness all too often elicit defensive responses, which might sound like the following (imaginary) statements, chosen, of course, for polemical effect:

We already provide access to our collection! Researchers and scholars are welcome to make an appointment to come in and view a film on the flatbed (as long as a reference print is available); we maintain a regular public screening schedule; and we lend screening prints to other qualified institutions. While archival moving image access encompasses a broad spectrum of modalities, legacy modes of access no longer address the needs of current and future moving image users. In contrast, many museums, libraries, and textual archives are working to develop user-centered access models, in so doing leaving moving image collections far behind.1

Lack of funding, staff, and resources make it impossible for us to mount a digitization project or serve legions of new users. Though this correctly describes the situation most institutions face, it's also a self-fulfilling prophecy [End Page 164] without alternatives. There are, in fact, numerous responses: reallocating internal resources to support user-centered services; coordinating access projects with potential partner institutions; using inexpensive, commodity-based tools and services to expose holdings and enable their use; collaborating with user communities and the public to digitize and contextualize materials; turning the archives into producer and publisher; and many others.

Archival ethics and best practices prevent us from providing access to materials that haven't been preserved. Once-well-intentioned restrictions instituted to protect unpreserved physical materials mean much less in an age of infinite digital surrogates. Many archivists have learned that nondestructive copying of unpreserved materials enables vastly expanded access and materially aids in the quest for preservation funding. It is untenable for an archive to maintain a smaller collection of accessible, preserved materials and a larger collection that is inaccessible pending preservation.

We can't expose or furnish material without permission from the copyright holders. True, of course, in many cases; unclear or untrue in just as many others. Most moving image archives actually possess significant reserves of potentially unencumbered...