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  • Archival Storytelling: A Filmmaker’s Guide to Finding, Using, and Licensing Third-Party Visuals and Music
  • Snowden Becker (bio)
Archival Storytelling: A Filmmaker’s Guide to Finding, Using, and Licensing Third-Party Visuals and Music; by Sheila Curran Bernard and Kenn Rabin; Focal Press, 2009

S. R. Ranganathan’s Third Law of Library Science declares, “Every book its reader.” Some interpret this to mean that a book’s reader is predetermined, either by the author who writes it for a specific audience or by the publisher who defines for it a specific market. The rule allows, though, for an unused book to be exposed via the library shelves to all readers, and through that exposure to find its reader: the person who finds the book of value, use, or interest.

The new book Archival Storytelling is aimed at the storytellers, for its cover declares it “a filmmaker’s guide” and its contents indicate that it is meant for those who do (or could) work with existing footage; nevertheless, an archivist, too, could find much to intrigue and inform here. Archival Storytelling effectively conveys what experienced footage researchers and film producers feel everyone working in their field should know about working with archival media. Archivists who work with those same footage researchers and film producers can get from the book a better sense of what expectations, assumptions, and needs storytellers bring with them to the archive. Finally, and perhaps most important, it illustrates how broadly (and sometimes contradictorily) archives are defined by an influential community of users.

Authors Sheila Curran Bernard and Kenn Rabin both worked on the fourteen-hour Eyes on the Prize documentary series, which incorporated hundreds of archival film and audio clips from dozens of repositories and private collections—and which has been notoriously hampered by copyright clearance issues since its original release. With this credit alone, Bernard and Rabin’s bona fides as field-tested guides to the complex process of researching and licensing archival media might be well established, but they each have other qualifications to recommend them: Emmy and Peabody awards in Bernard’s case, and in Rabin’s, archival researcher credits on many of the recent Hollywood features praised by critics for their use of vintage footage (Milk, The Good German, and Good Night, and Good Luck, among others).

Bernard and Rabin define archival materials broadly, as ranging from home movies and snapshots owned by their creators to commercially produced and owned materials such as wire service photos, news footage, music, and radio broadcasts. They define archives broadly, too, but often indirectly and in a contradictory way. Early on, they answer the question of “who owns archival materials” with “everybody, from you and your family . . . to some of the wealthiest individuals, institutions, and corporations in the world” (4). Elsewhere in the book, when Bernard and Rabin refer to an “archive,” they [End Page 155] mean either a commercial stock-image entity or a major public institution like the Library of Congress or National Archives and Records Administration; on the other hand, they may also be referring to a smaller site such as a university library’s special collections department or a small-town historical society.

This undifferentiated use of the A word is, admittedly, in keeping with the general tendency to describe any collection of stuff that is not in one’s current issue, episode, or inbox as being “in the archive.” Here, as elsewhere, this casual usage has the potential to confuse and mislead, as when the authors assert that “most archives now have online databases” (35). That sentence opens the section on commercial still and moving image providers, but it is not made clear that commercial archives are really the only ones to whom the statement applies. Anyone working in one of the smaller historical societies or special collections that are mentioned later in the book has known the frustration of trying to deal with the average researcher’s already-present expectation that all holdings in any collection will be available for browsing online and will probably be dismayed to see that expectation reinforced here. The authors’ interpretation of the “archival” part of Archival Storytelling nods to the idea of...


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pp. 155-157
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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