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The Moving Image 3.1 (2003) x, 1-41

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Documenting the Process of Film Preservation

Karen F. Gracy


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The preservation of a particular film is one of the most visible and identifiable activities of the archive—one that requires the involvement of all divisions of the archive. Although the preservation of a film may seem to be something of a "black box" to those readers who do not actively engage in this work, this process can be summarized as a series of sequential steps that includes specific decision points and results in measurable outputs at various stages along the way. In this manner, I have documented the individual tasks performed by archivists, curators, catalogers, and projectionists in specific situations and explored the many difficult decisions that they must make during the course of preservation work. [End Page 1]

Research Design and Methodology

The approach employed for this study relied on the methodology of ethnographic fieldwork, and its results encompass data collected during the course of both participant observation and in-depth interviewing.

Primary data collection took place at two film archives in the noncommercial sector; additional data was collected through conversations with archivists working in various areas in the commercial sector (including studios, laboratories, and storage facilities). 1 Through these qualitative methods, I was able to record the social reality of the film archivists under study, including their actions, decisions, and opinions about their work.

Along the way, I was also able to uncover data on the attitudes, values, and ethics of the film preservation community, thus eliciting what Robert M. Emerson calls "indigenous meanings."2

This research emphasized context, setting, organizational culture, and the participants' frames of reference, and should not be taken as a how-to manual for preserving all films in every institutional context. It is impossible to assume that the findings can be transferred to new situations and social milieu—they are entirely grounded within the contexts from which the data were gathered. 3

Because this research employs qualitative methods, I would ask readers to judge the design of this study not by concepts endemic to the quantitative research paradigm—e.g., objectivity, external and internal validity, and reliability—but rather by measures more appropriate to the critique of qualitative research, such as those suggested by Yvonna Lincoln and Egon Guba in their work on ethnographic methods, Naturalistic Inquiry. 4 These criteria include:

  • Credibility, instead of internal validity, "in which the goal is to demonstrate that the inquiry was conducted in such a manner as to ensure that the subject was accurately identified and described"—keeping in mind the parameters of the particular setting, process, social group, and pattern of interaction investigated.
  • Transferability, instead of external validity, whereby "the burden of demonstrating the applicability of one set of findings to another context rests more with the investigator who would make that transfer than with the original investigator." The test of transferability in ethnographic research lies [End Page 2] not in how well particular findings "fit" another setting, but the suitability of the research's theoretical underpinnings for guiding additional research by other investigators in new settings. 5
  • Dependability, instead of reliability, "in which the researcher attempts to account for changing conditions in the phenomenon chosen for the study as well as changes in the design created by increasingly refined understanding of the setting." This concept assumes that the social world is continually being constructed, thus replication of the study is not only impossible, but also not a practical consideration for the qualitative researcher.
  • Confirmability, instead of objectivity, in which the researcher "remove[s] evaluation from some inherent characteristic of the researcher (objectivity) and place[s] it squarely on the data themselves. Thus the qualitative criterion is: Do the data help confirm the general findings and lead to the implications?"

By reviewing the results of the study in this light, readers may be less tempted to see them as overreaching simplifications of preservation work or, even worse, as prescriptions for every type of preservation project. [End Page 3]

Overview of Data Presentation and Analysis...


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