- Archives and Access in the 21st Century
Some 30 years ago moving image archives began migrating from the fringes of media culture towards the center. For some (but not all) collections, mainstreaming has brought wealth and fame, visibility and allure. Scholarly work built on the archival record is increasing, mass media is redolent with archival images and sounds, and a growing number of "archives fans" regard once-obscure repositories as exciting, relevant, and culturally hip institutions. But while the archival hour may be at hand, the sustainability and survival of archival institutions are far from certain. The reasons are both extrinsic and intrinsic to archives. Many institutions sequester their holdings behind walls of copyright, policy, or indifference, rendering them inaccessible to many. Quick Web searches are replacing deep archival research, and most archival materials are not online. Copyright maximalism, a reluctance to embrace technology, and resistance to providing public access are marginalizing moving image archives at the very moment when they might otherwise be addressing massive new audiences and building new constituencies.
What is it about moving images that problematizes archival practice? How can we turn risks into opportunities in the twenty-first century archives? How can archivists embrace new public roles and put the stereotype of the reclusive, dust-covered repository to rest? And how can scholars, the canonical beneficiaries of archives, help them to reconcile legacy practices and new cultural functions?
While the "classical" moving image archives may have theoretically accepted the indivisibility of its two primary missions, preservation and access, archivists tended to privilege preservation. This was perfectly logical. For moving image archives, access has always been a sticky door. Free and open access was potentially against the law (for certain copyrighted materials) and insupportably expensive (when staffing was short, budgets inadequate, or equipment lacking). Allowing access to formerly private collections contravened contracts (if donor restrictions governed). Many moving image archives held materials covertly, without explicit authorization, again making access to materials risky.
In fact, excepting a few exemplary institutions, access to most moving image collections is still minimal. As many scholars know, archival access requires viewing a film on the premises, using special flatbed editing tables on which fast forward has been disabled, with five days' notice to pull material. Access is often restricted [End Page 114] to accredited scholars working on projects that the archives' director deems useful. Outside North America, access can sometimes be even more difficult.
More broadly, institutions still tend to define access in reductive terms. It is no longer accurate to thematize demand for archival moving image access primarily as a scholarly phenomenon (with a bit of added interest from DVD publishers). Access is, in fact, a spectrum of possible use, ranging from in-house viewing to full online availability with reuse permission—from scholarly use to uninhibited public use. Just as media production is dramatically shifting from institutionally based practices to individual activities, so is interest in archives (and, for that matter, archival practice itself). The fan community, the production community, the blogger, the independent scholar, and the genealogist are all discovering the density, evidentiary value, and vividness of archival imagery and sound…and they are knocking at the archive door. Many archives now report that scholarly research requests now lag well behind production research requests, and some archivists feel themselves turning into stock footage librarians.
On its face, this would seem to represent the long-awaited social validation of moving image archives, marginalized for so long compared to textual and fine-arts collections. One would imagine that archivists would be enthusiastic about their new popularity. But this is not always so. I find it unsettling, for instance, that some archivists continue to debate the ethics of making collections available to "just anyone" because of the possible dangers of "misuse" (read "improper" contextualization). Imagining themselves quite literally as "keepers" of culture, some archivists are still choosing a rarefied and restricted path. Archival listservs are filled with anxious questions about copyright and clearances. Often questions are answered by alarmists who suggest setting absurdly high barriers to access or reuse. Loaded phrases such as "copyright infringement" and "losing control of collections" perpetuate feelings of anxiety and caution, doing a...