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Starting from Nothing: The Art of Creating a Film Archive
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Building a film archive at the University of Washington Libraries Special Collections has often made me feel like I am throwing darts with the goal of hitting the bull’s-eye—in this case, a fully functional, staffed, and funded film preservation program. Although this goal has not been completely accomplished, we started with nothing in 2001 and have come a long way since.

In 2012, I was thrilled to receive a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grant for two hundred thousand dollars to work on a recent donation of almost five hundred films related to mountaineering. This scenario would not have been possible at the time I arrived at the University of Washington Libraries Special Collections and began to figure out what to do with the film collection. In 2001, not only was there no way we could have applied for such a grant but also we could not have handled a donation of five hundred films. Although film came in to Special Collections before my time, it was often as a sidebar to a manuscript or other collection. There was little interest in actively collecting or working on film, and over the years, valuable regional film collections went to other institutions, some outside of Washington, such as the Oregon Historical Society. Some large and important film collections came to Special Collections only to eventually be returned to the donors because there were no procedures in place for handling or caring for them.

This is not an indictment of the University of Washington Libraries Special Collections department’s lack of interest in film. Historically, most archives did very little work with their visual collections. Archival collecting and management were traditionally focused on manuscript and book collections and seldom included specialists in handling photography and film. By the 1970s and 1980s, interest in having photography specialists for archives was growing, and photoarchivist positions started to be added to archives across the country. Later interest also grew in dealing with archival moving image collections. I came to Special Collections as the visual materials curator, a position specializing in managing our large visual collections of photography, architectural drawings, moving images, and other visual materials. Like so many other archivists, I was faced with the problem of what to do with our films. I had two choices: I could ignore them (the large photography and architectural drawing collections alone could occupy me for the rest of my career), or I could try to do something.

Being optimistic, I opted for the second choice. However, there were a few roadblocks: there were no procedures, no equipment, no inventory or listing of the films, and no staff trained to work with them, and of course, there wasn’t any funding. Because I have to manage all the visual collections for the archive, there simply was no way I could do the daily hands-on work with the film collection. And last, in a large and complex library system with many demands like the University of Washington Libraries, there was, and rightly so, no way to justify any official library funding to support a position to work on the films when there had been little to no use of these materials.

So the question presented itself: how do you go about building a film program from scratch, with nothing, from nothing? You have no resources? Look closer. You have your ability to think creatively—that’s a great resource, so use it to get started. Over the past ten years, I’ve come up with some rules to help guide the process.

Rule 1: Create a Vision for What You Want to Achieve and Don’t Let the Lack of Resources Stop You From Working Toward that Vision

Think about what your goal is and be able to articulate it. Mine is to create a regional film archive that can not only handle our films but also serve as a resource to encourage and help other state institutions to be able to care for their films. Once you have a goal in mind, look for parts of that goal you might be able to achieve; although you may not be able to achieve your entire...



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