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The Moving Image 6.1 (2006) 66-81

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Amateur Video Must Not Be Overlooked

[End Page 66]

In early September 2003, the New York Times revealed that an amateur video from September 11, 2001, that showed both planes hitting the World Trade Center had surfaced. It is the only footage that does so. In the two years after it was shot, however, the tape had "bounced around" the apartment of its maker, Pavel Hlava, an immigrant from the Czech Republic. Once, he found his young son with the camera, erasing the tape. He got the camera away before any harm was done, the Times reported. Times editors headlined the story, by James Glanz, "A Rare View of Sept. 11, Overlooked."

"Looking at the overlooked" is how Warren Roberts frequently described the academic field of folklore. For Roberts, who in 1953 became the first person to earn a folklore PhD in the United States, "the overlooked" referred to modest houses, tools, and [End Page 67] other everyday artifacts that can reveal how the majority of pioneer Americans—people he called "the 95 percent"—had really lived. He believed that historians and others had more than sufficiently documented the wealthy and influential 5 percent. Folklorists, on the other hand, were called to seek out and deeply understand artifacts of the 95 percent that were not often prized or widely seen as valuable.

Artifacts made today by the 95 percent include technologically advanced texts such as digital video. The events of September 11, 2001, are among the most infamous newsworthy images ever captured by an amateur videographer, but they were not the first and will certainly not be the last. Amateur moving images have literally changed the way we see the events of our time. As Jan-Christopher Horak, the editor of The Moving Image, wrote not long after the attack:

One heard it over and over again: it was like a movie. Indeed, humanity all over the globe experienced this catastrophe in real time like no event before, thanks to the advent of the digital video camera. That invention has allowed every amateur moving image maker to deliver broadcast-quality tapes of events that previously we could have only heard about or at best seen in a still image.

But camcorders are not reserved for times of national crisis. Members of the 95 percent all across America record community events ranging from more small-scale disasters, such as tornadoes and snowstorms, to the traditions of parades and festivals that mark the cycle of the civic year. In the small groups that view these tapes, they are one way people come to know their neighbors. Yet it is a rare tape that is made public to a larger audience, as was Hlava's remarkable recording. Journalists value amateur tapes only when they major record events missed by professionals. And amateur video is only slowly entering the awareness of many of those whose mission is to record and preserve the artifacts of our time. Still, the existence and use of amateur videotape outside professional circles sparks questions about community epistemology:

Who is empowered to tell the stories of our communities, both to insiders and to those outside the group? Who should be empowered with that storytelling mission?

The 95 percent should share that storytelling mission, and their videos can be a major contribution in every community. This is in line with the Library of Congress's Television/Video Preservation Study, which has called on archivists to "identify home video as a potentially valuable source of social documentation" (Murphy 1997). Archivists [End Page 68] should pursue partnerships and community outreach to identify and select amateur community video for archiving. This article suggests some preliminary criteria for identification and selection of such video, and also recommends expanding and adding detail to the ways home movies and video are categorized by creating a new genre called "community vernacular video." Finally, a movement to save these videos is urgently needed, as the change from tape to digital formats endangers many original video documents.

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