- Reconsidering the Archive: Digitization and Latin American Film Historiography
Over the past decade, the drive toward digitization and online access has created new means of disseminating Latin American cinema and documents relating to its history. From personal blogs on film history that are richly illustrated with period images to new data-based scholarship, especially in the field of early cinema, the scholarly and popular interest generated by digital archives is abundantly clear.1 Yet digital remediation and access (re)produce methodological challenges that are especially thorny in the case of Latin America, where the scarcity of financial resources and the often vexed relationship between cultural institutions and the state have often rendered archival preservation fragmentary and politically fraught.
Digitization exemplifies a fundamental archival dilemma: the frequent incompatibility of preservation and access. Just as celluloid is a superior preservation medium for moving images, microfilm remains readable longer than digital files, and a digitization-only policy threatens the long-term survival of documents.2 Furthermore, by striving to make ubiquitous, on-demand access the norm, digitization can compound the archive’s elision of its own gaps and silences—what Jacques Derrida called the anarchive. In his influential Archive Fever, in part a reflection on the digital, Derrida argues that the material impermanence of all archival storage makes it impossible to separate the drive for preservation from the “violence of forgetting.”3 Referring to the physical substrate of archives, he writes, “right on that which permits and conditions archivization, we will never find anything other than [End Page 121] that which exposes to destruction, and in truth menaces with destruction, introducing, a priori, forgetfulness . . . into the heart of the monument.”4
The tensions inherent to archiving are foregrounded by digital obsolescence and the imperative of access. Given the limited resources available to many Latin American institutions, archival material that has not been digitized (and often, never microfilmed or properly stored), or whose digital format is outdated, is threatened with effective erasure from the historical record. When institutions outside the region work to fill this preservation gap, they risk reinforcing a neocolonial dynamic of knowledge production, encouraging the concentration of documents from and scholarship about emerging world regions in Europe and the United States. Obstacles to consulting documents collected elsewhere, often behind institutional paywalls, are compounded by the limited and uneven penetration of Internet access in many Latin American and Caribbean nations.5
As these references to the opportunities and challenges of digitization suggest, my purpose in this brief essay is twofold. First, I provide a guide to online resources for historical research on Latin American cinema, from audiovisual material and iconography to digital newspapers and magazines. Second, I highlight theoretical and methodological questions raised by digitization in the context of Latin American film historiography. A key question is the opposition between open-access models, favored by Latin American cultural institutions and linked to a rhetoric of cultural patrimony, and access by subscription only, whether on an individual or an institutional basis.6 This model dominates in the United States, where some of the most comprehensive collections of Latin American periodicals and documents are housed.
These divergent approaches stem from differing conceptions of cultural capital. In North America, a legal distinction was drawn between art and commerce in the silent era, and cinema aligned with the latter.7 By contrast, in Latin America, despite neo-liberal tendencies toward privatization, cinema continues to be viewed as an expression of national identity, simultaneously funded and policed by the state.8 Partnerships between cultural institutions and private enterprise have fueled archival digitization in Latin America; however, most collections remain open access.9 This approach is [End Page 122] pragmatic: if Latin American states aim to preserve a (selective) brand of cultural specificity in the face of globalization, it is in their interest to facilitate the online circulation of documents of national history and culture through state institutions. By contrast, US companies such as LexisNexis, ProQuest, and NewsBank demonstrate the profitability of making newspaper and magazine archives digitally accessible for a fee.
While paywalls place clear limits on our access to archives, database and interface design more subtly condition researchers’ interactions with historical sources. This...