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The Moving Image 6.2 (2006) 30-51

The Library of Congress Film Project
Film Collecting and a United State(s) of Mind
Janna Jones
[End Page 30]

There were whispers of concern about the ephemeral nature of motion picture films and their potential importance to future generations when the film industry was in its infancy. An editorial in the 1906 industry trade paper Views and Film Index, for example, opined that in fifty or one hundred years films might become vital archival documents. Suggesting that moving images of President Roosevelt, busy street scenes, and veteran processions might be of value someday, the editorial acknowledged that the past disappears so quickly in a culture fixated on progress that photographs and film might help to prevent the obliteration of memory. "Perhaps the day will come when motion pictures will be treasured by governments in their museums as vital documents in their historical archives." The editorial urged readers to consider the cultural impact of film and its unique ability to record both [End Page 31] everyday life and monumental events, and it called for the country's great universities to begin gathering films of "national importance" for future students. Interestingly, films of such import included mundane scenes of city streets as well as the historic occasions of presidential gatherings. In this early view, motion picture film was viewed as a time capsule that might afford future generations the ability to see the past, a past that would presumably be wiped out by progress. Archiving motion pictures could help to cultivate cultural memory by preserving political and social histories, thereby aiding the education of future generations.

A 1915 editorial in Motography entitled "Can Films Be Preserved for Posterity?" pointed to the potential problems that came with saving motion picture film; namely that its chemical properties and composition might lead to instability, flammability, and the growth of fungus. The editorial's concerns about film storage and chemical instability were driven by a desire to preserve moving images of the important actions of World War I. "Now that the greatest event in world history is transpiring, so to speak, before our cameras," the editorial explained, "the historians are offered their first extraordinary opportunity to establish archives of film records, to preserve into the indefinite future the exact replicas of today's actions."1

The editorial's archival impulse is, in part, driven by reports of the German government filming and archiving their participation in the war. It was also motivated by the possibility that future generations could be imbued with patriotism if they were afforded the chance to see "the exact replicas of today's actions." Both the 1906 and 1915 editorials suggested that films should be collected for future generations because they were documents of significant human activity. If films were protected, both editorials reasoned, future generations would respect history and be moved to patriotism. Such early archival inclinations were centered on nonfictional moving images that could offer future generations ways to see history exactly. While the 1905 editorial conjectured that scenes of both daily life and the politically powerful were worth collecting, the 1915 editorial focused only on grand, national events that would foster patriotism in future generations.


While such a collection was only dreamt about in 1915, by the forties, the Library of Congress and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) collaborated in creating a national collection of films that reflected the strength and character of the country during World War II. This attempt at creating a comprehensive national moving image collection is the primary [End Page 32] focus of this essay, and while it an important chapter in the history and development of the motion picture archive, this essay is not primarily for the purpose of recounting. Instead, I consider how acts of collaboration, compromise, and resistance shaped the collection and how these acts helped to form our cultural memory. This essay, in part, reminds us that the moving image archive, like any other historical record, is not...


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