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Workshops, workflows & wooden trains

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Plenary talk delivered at the Rare Books & Manuscripts Preconference, American Library Association and Association of College & Research Libraries, Oakland, California, June 26, 2015

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Workshops, workflows & wooden trains

  1. 1. Workshops, workflows & wooden trains Rick Prelinger Prelinger Library & Archives / UC Santa Cruz RBMS 15 / Oakland / 26 June 2015 1 Thanks to all of you who have made this conference possible, and thanks to everyone for making the discussion so intensely stimulating. I'm really honored to be here, especially to be among the people from whom I've learned so much at the University of Twitter, where most of the great discussions among librarians and archivists are taking place.
  2. 2. self-intro 2 Starting in 1999 I joined with Internet Archive to build a freely downloadable online moving image collection. As many of you know from experience, the opportunity to provide a high degree of access to a collection can be life-changing. The Internet Archive project turned me into a collaborator with unknown thousands, perhaps millions of people, and helped enable the production of unknown thousands of derivative works. Being able to give away pictures, sounds and data is a highly privileged position, and it's caused me to think somewhat differently about archives and access than many others might. I no longer take archival workflow for granted. And I'm not sure I take archives (as we know them) for granted. So I'm unsure whether I should use the term "we" when I speak of archivists, but I will anyway.
  3. 3. Generations 1 Ephemeral films (1983—2002) 2 Online collab with Internet Archive (2000—) 3 Prelinger Library (in collab with Megan Prelinger, 2004—) 4 Home movies, amateur film (fl. 2008—) 4 San Francisco Participatory Archives Group (2012—14) 5 Public, participatory history events (from 1987, but particularly 2006—) 3 I was asked to outline the history and trajectory of my work, which I think falls into 5 periods. (The two number 4's represent different pieces of a single project.)
  4. 4. Generations 1 Ephemeral films (1983—2002) 2 Online collab with Internet Archive (2000—) 3 Prelinger Library (in collab with Megan Prelinger, 2004—) 4 Home movies, amateur film (fl. 2008—) 4 San Francisco Participatory Archives Group (2012—14) 5 Public, participatory history events (from 1987, but particularly 2006—) 4 The first period started when I worked on a documentary film that went into hibernation and then began collecting materials I'd discovered while doing research. These were advertising, educational and industrial films, eloquent, entertaining and evidentiary, and almost completely uncollected. The moving image archives field was much less established, and archives privileged fiction films, newsreels and television, not ephemeral film. Individual collectors stepped in. I had to go into debt to do it, but I collected something around 15% (60,000 out of 400,000) of the total corpus of US-produced educational, industrial and advertising films; that's probably 1/4 of the total that survive. As many of you know, the collection went to Library of Congress in 2002.
  5. 5. 5 Until fairly recently these kinds of films weren't recognized as primary evidence, and there is still a scholarly bias toward the textual record. But as we get better at looking how moving images actually produce meaning and at learning how to parse complex visual evidence, we're better at using them for research. As in so many areas, fan culture preceded scholarship, and I did my best to feed it. I used films for public screenings and making early new-media work with the Voyager Company: laserdiscs and CD-ROM anthologies contextualizing the films with period documents, writing and images. Slowly these films moved from the cultural periphery closer towards the center, just as the vector from fan culture to peer review grew shorter. In 2007 NYU inaugurated the first class on sponsored film since perhaps the 1940s. And scholarly discourse around ephemeral films continues to grow.
  6. 6. Generations 1 Ephemeral films (1983—2002) 2 Online collab with Internet Archive (2000—) 3 Prelinger Library (in collab with Megan Prelinger, 2004—) 4 Home movies, amateur film (fl. 2008—) 4 San Francisco Participatory Archives Group (2012—14) 5 Public, participatory history events (from 1987, but particularly 2006—) 6 In 1999 I met Brewster Kahle, who in the first 20 seconds of our first telephone call recruited me to put my collection online for free. There was relatively little video online at that time, and it took some time to figure out how best to do this, but we launched a small collection and immediately broke Internet Archive's servers. The initial collection of 1001 films has grown to some 6400, all freely downloadable and most freely reusable. Counting views and downloads from archive.org and mirrors, we think there have been something over 100 million access events for this collection. I've often wished other collections would do the same. Few have. There's a lot of material on YouTube, and a lot of material in the streaming world, but not much is officially downloadable and offered explicitly for reuse. [Internet Archive also offers a massive contemporary TV news index that includes searchable closed captions and viewing, but no downloading for reasons that should be obvious].
  7. 7. 7 I said it was a life-changing experience. These once-obscure films have deeply infiltrated visual culture. The most cursory YouTube search yields over twenty thousand derivative works, mirrors, remixes. As of yesterday morning there are 5,700 hits relating to our Market Street 1906 film, which has sensitized millions of people to the peculiar attraction of archival film. But this is populism. Where does this project fit into the ecosystem of moving image archives and research centers, and what kinds of inquiry might it facilitate? -- First, moving images have not been part of most humanities and social sciences research, even though when they are central. Reading time-based media has historically been a specialized practice, often siloed within cinema and media studies. (Cinema and media studies people have probably made less use of our material than people working in the arts, gender studies, and in the historical disciplines.) The films in ours and other IA collections could often be central to scholarly inquiry if graduate students and scholars received more positive reinforcement for working with them. This is changing, but slowly. -- Thing to remember is that most historical moving images are enclosed and unavailable online because of copyright, expense of preservation (most moving image archives won't distribute copies of unpreserved materials -- a fascinating situation), and archivists' unease about "losing control". As a result, most historical moving images research must be done onsite, and researchers must pay hefty fees to make copies). Lack of access to research materials has probably influenced the course of scholarship more than loss. -- Libraries often subscribe to paywalled services that offer films on a pay-for-play for FTE basis, which makes public citation difficult. Some of these services add real value (transcripts, etc.) but I note that my institutions's library pays for access to materials from my archives that could be accessed online for free. In the model of JSTOR and artSTOR we need a FILMstor, but I hope Internet Archive survives as a robust free alternative.
  8. 8. 8 -- Far more access events than probably any other North American archival film collection -- Not always the most germane record, but certainly the most accessible -- Collection targeted for reuse; it's the default free footage source for students, independents and professionals. We were the first significant Creative Commons collection, though we are not really mentioned in the histories of CC -- Persistent URLs enable inward citations
  9. 9. 9 -- There are problems. For me the greatest issue is that the collection portal is occupied primarily by fans. I celebrate fandom, but their reviews and annotations are of a character that makes the site unattractive for scholars and educators to post on. This is a heavily used scholarly and teaching resource, but scholars and teachers do not annotate, and it would be a great step forward if they did. As a consequence, we see very few outward citations on Internet Archive's detail pages. -- Also, our film collection is unfunded and survives on earned income. We therefore expose relatively few films online in HD and charge for access to higher-res materials and, of course, for use agreements that contain an indemnification clause. It would be nice not to have to do this.
  10. 10. Generations 1 Ephemeral films (1983—2002) 2 Online collab with Internet Archive (2000—) 3 Prelinger Library (in collab with Megan Prelinger, 2004—) 4 Home movies, amateur film (fl. 2008—) 4 San Francisco Participatory Archives Group (2012—14) 5 Public, participatory history events (from 1987, but particularly 2006—) 10 In 2004 my partner Megan and I opened the doors of our experimental research library in downtown San Francisco. This is a personal project, but we reject the tradition of the affluent collector's private cloister. It's both formally unpublished and published materials, hundreds of periodical runs, 10,000 zines, plus a large collection of what we loosely call ephemera, and it's open about 7 days a month (more coming soon) to anyone for free. We warmly encourage patrons to scan, shoot and copy materials, and in fact most people use the library as a source of materials to appropriate. Increasingly we also support more traditional scholars who find the library to be a source of materials they cannot find (or easily touch) elsewhere. While we see it much more as a library than as a repository for archival collections, we hold quite a number of collections of archival significance. We see some 800-1000 visitors a year,
  11. 11. 11 This is before we unpacked boxes and shelved. We never anticipated that this repository would become a workshop, a place where people came to meet, converse, plan projects and make work. But after we saw this it seemed natural that libraries and archives should move in this direction. To convene people around a collection is not just gratifying; it gives the collection and its custodians a much greater sense of purpose.
  12. 12. 12 Here is a crowded day a few years back. We're in much better order now. -- hybrid analog/digital library -- No catalog! Our own unique taxonomy and arrangement (authored by MSP). This is pretty stable as far as the breakdown of subject clusters goes, but it serves serendipity and discovery much better than a query-based discovery system, and it is dynamic; the physical arrangement can and does change often. (We don't think this works well for our ephemera collection.) I also want to mention in passing the idea of classification as authorship: this collection is very much a consciously authored work, as well as an installation in its way YOU'RE ALL INVITED TO COME ON SATURDAY, 11-4, IF FREE
  13. 13. Generations 1 Ephemeral films (1983—2002) 2 Online collab with Internet Archive (2000—) 3 Prelinger Library (in collab with Megan Prelinger, 2004—) 4 Home movies, amateur film (fl. 2008—) 4 San Francisco Participatory Archives Group (2012—14) 5 Public, participatory history events (from 1987, but particularly 2006—) 13 I always collected home movies, but at a certain point became deeply focused on personal documentation and personal media. Home movies are an effectively infinite medium. They constitute intimate yet unpredictable documentation; and I accept few limits on the necessary scope of collecting. My goal is to assemble as complete an ethnographic dataset as possible of daily life and ritual in 20th-century North America.
  14. 14. 14 -- While home movies may be banal, enigmatic or evidentiary, they are endlessly fascinating, and the time to collect them is now. Every film we scan is going online, unless there are good reasons not to share them publicly.
  15. 15. 15 [Here is a home movie clip showing Japanese Americans who have been incarcerated in the Jerome Relocation Center, Jerome, Arkansas. The people shown in this sequence (shot in the spring of 1944) are being released and boarding trains for north and west.]
  16. 16. Generations 1 Ephemeral films (1983—2002) 2 Online collab with Internet Archive (2000—) 3 Prelinger Library (in collab with Megan Prelinger, 2004—) 4 Home movies, amateur film (fl. 2008—) 4 San Francisco Participatory Archives Group (2012—14) 5 Public, participatory history events (from 1987, but particularly 2006—) 16 The SF Participatory Archives Group was a generally successful experiment, and I hope to reincarmate it again soon. It is a different example of the repository/workshop hybrid:
  17. 17. Robert C. Binkley, Manual on Methods of Producing Research Materials, 1937 17 I quote Robert Binkley in this slide. The immense backlogs of physical film seem to defy efforts to process them. Could we bring nonprofessionals into the archives to work with materials, annotate, repair, conserve, prepare for copying and scanning? Could we really build a participatory physical archives? I ran a two-year experiment supervised by archivists trained at the Selznick School of Film & Media Preservation at GEH, and we did inspection, repair, description and scanning prep on 4,800 out of a 12,000-item home movie collection. Volunteers received training in exchange for their hours, and many have gone on to paid work in the field.
  18. 18. 18 Many of us have track records sharing digital surrogates and symbolically bringing patrons into our repositories. We have opened up the front of the house. Now we need to find ways to open up the back -- to bring people into into storage and processing areas, not just in the gallery or research room. Can scholars be a part of this?
  19. 19. Generations 1 Ephemeral films (1983—2002) 2 Online collab with Internet Archive (2000—) 3 Prelinger Library (in collab with Megan Prelinger, 2004—) 4 Home movies, amateur film (fl. 2008—) 4 San Francisco Participatory Archives Group (2012—14) 5 Public, participatory history events (from 1987, but particularly 2006—) 19 I've done screenings for a long while but they took a new turn in 2007, when I began to do urban history programs in San Francisco and later in Detroit. In 2013 I released NO MORE ROAD TRIPS?, a participatory film showing a dream road trip from East to West made from home movies shot between 1924 and 1970.] I make digital films that play in front of audiences who talk while the film is showing. They identify what they see, they make remarks, they ask questions. I thought I was doing something radical, until I realized I was really reincarnating the Elizabethan theater with the loud and boisterous groundlings in the front pit, letting the actors and the rest of the audience know what they thought about the show. When the scale of a home movie changes from living-room to big-screen, we see more than we expected. Viewers become keen observers, often in ways usually associated with ethnographers and cultural geographers. And when we encourage them to speak, they take on new responsibilities and perform the material in very different ways. It is a great entitlement.
  20. 20. 20 It's important to state that these are not movies-qua-movies, and what I do is only secondarily filmmaking. It's really about pushing out materials with evidentiary value, about staging a fairly open-ended encounter between audiences and archival film materials. The drama isn't in a preconceived narrative, because the narrative is mostly constructed (and performed) by the viewers on the fly; the drama is in the evidence itself. And out of this comes a sense that the evidence itself is what's most interesting; that so much of what we see in historical filmmaking, and in documentary films, constitutes overnarrativization. Narrative as encrustation. Not only in the public arena, but in the humanities, I want to find a place for foregrounding the record itself with relatively little "storytelling". In other words, seek to encourage new kinds of negotiation between the document and its users, and let a more-or-less contextualized, or even decontextualized document find its own path. This could mean trusting evidence over interpretation.
  21. 21. 21 Clip from my participatory film event NO MORE ROAD TRIPS?
  22. 22. 22 So, a few attributes that tie this history together, as well as a few issues that it suggests, looking at the implications for both established and nontraditional collections, and how it might affect their approach to humanistic inquiry.
  23. 23. title: #rbms15, plenary 3, keynote 3 23 MATERIALITY. Our collections have considerable digital presence, but we foreground the physical. Obviously, this is true in the library: physical use and touching is critical -- physical materials enable social and collective reading in ways that digital materials often cannot do, and many of our patrons no longer live in worlds where physical text and images play much of a role. For some time access to digital materials was a function of privilege; I am concerned that this is reversing. As physical materials vanish, they won't be available for most people to touch, and access to most humanities resources (not to mention the mechanics of citizenship itself) will be mediated through digital barriers. Through work with the library and archives we have come to realize that digital and physical are not opposites but complementaries. Each has a different job to do and each interoperates with the other in ways we might not always predict. The turn to digital revalidates the analog, and in fact often helps us to perform traditional tasks better. This is a partial echo of what Rachel Sagner Buurma said yesterday.
  24. 24. title: #rbms15, plenary 3, keynote 3 24 My experience leads me to see collecting and research as SOCIAL ACTIVITIES; to regard library and archival work as social practice. [We collect to address the perceived interests of future users, and to aggregate materials that we think will problematize received ideas and widely accepted histories, document underrepresented communities, and help people to critique presentism. Periodicals and ephemera seem to do this better than monographs, which are generally more vetted; periodicals and ephemera often represent shorter-term perspectives.] We collect to address needs that are not yet necessarily articulated and to answer questions that have not yet been conceived. We also collect to enable our own film and writing work. We collect with the explicit intention of sharing and finding new ways to share. But even though our current understanding of how to enable use of cultural materials is barely emergent, there are limits to how much of a commons we can build within the bounds of our current system. And we enthusiastically encourage SOCIAL READING and shared discussion in the library.
  25. 25. 25 We take pride in INDEPENDENCE. All of these collections were built and mostly maintained independently, outside the purview of academic institutions. It's possible to look at some of them as more or less respectful critiques of traditional archival and library practices. And they were especially calibrated to facilitate the work of independent scholars, non-affiliated researchers, artists and media makers.
  26. 26. 26 WE EMBRACE INCONVENIENCE. Others at this conference have been talking about "slowing things down." Inconvenience has its virtues and can be formative. Wrangling with inconvenience is like choosing to write by hand instead of typing or dictating. You learn more about the words you are processing. I discovered this with physical media while making my urban history programs. These were originally prompted some years back by an interest in showing historical films to audiences who potentially had a direct relationship to the material. Film is inconvenient, hard to show; it takes time, labor and resources to inspect, repair, document, prep for scanning, scan, edit, etc. But this can involve community members, creators and their relatives. It could even involve motivated scholars. [The slide shows an emergency warning siren at Great Highway and Taraval St. in San Francisco, out of service to accommodate the nesting Red-Tailed Hawks.]
  27. 27. 27 I don't want to say that our practice is exemplary or even that unusual any more. But independent collections enable research in ways that more traditionally organized institutions cannot. We may not be nearly as comprehensive, but we are often more direct and efficient. We may not present our materials on lovingly contextualized and vetted websites, but we shovel a lot of material online to surprise and enrich our users. We can often be better at collecting specialized materials (nontextual, for instance) that can be vexing to traditional collections. And by defamiliarizing the compartmentation and seemingly mysterious workflows that exist in most special collections, we encourage our users and our longer-distance fans to think about how future libraries and archives might work. And often we possess all the virtues, not to mention the flaws, of amateurism.
  28. 28. Angry film librarian, 1970s 28 In the moving image world, collectors have played a huge role. Moving image archives have for years been in an immature state (some would say they still are) and have not been adequately funded or provisioned to collect material on the cultural margins. Collectors have stepped in; and, if you compare film archives to textual or iconographic archives, you may be surprised at how much established archives resemble private collections. Most moving image archives are accidental, and compared to some of their practices, outsider practices might actually look pretty good. But non-institutional collecting is often existential and opportunistic. Now that archival practice is no longer exclusively defined as a function of authority, individuals and institutions collect for many reasons, often poorly explained.
  29. 29. 29 PERSONAL RECORDS AND VERNACULAR COLLECTING PRACTICE. I want to step out from our activities with home movies to talk about personal records and vernacular collecting practices. There's an interesting bifurcation developing between the personal record and the institutional record, as well as between material produced by and for individuals and by the culture industries. I think this divide may shape the future of collections. I like to think of personal digital materials inhabiting a spectrum of personal recordkeeping that perhaps begins in the deep analog era: scratches in the sand, drawings on the cave walls, clay tablets, papyrus fragments, graffiti, etc., then extends to letters, postcards, quilts and diaries, then home movies and home video, into contemporary digital media, and finally towards digital (and post-digital) media we might expect (or not expect) in the future... We are already seeing a wild proliferation of devices for data capture and collection: dashcams, body cams (Google Glass was just a first effort), location data and metadata from phones, etc.; CCTV feeds; QS-type life data; endoscopy; sonograms; brain waves (not any time soon); medical telemetry.
  30. 30. 30 Personal records are effectively infinite, highly granular, often uncharismatic, extremely inconvenient, frequently unreleasable, eminently unselectable. One could argue that the firehose of personal records requires centralized institutions who can collect at scale. But one could also say that individuals, when they can, are most likely to be the preservers of personal (and non-personal) digital materials. Look at Jason Scott and the Archive Team. Perhaps more generally, will institutional patterns of digital archiving practice do much to influence vernacular practice? Or will it be the other way round? Or will there be reciprocal influence, communities of mutual concern rather than trickledown or trickleup? I believe personal records are one key to helping repositories survive. Speaking in the aggregate, I think the balance of archival queries has shifted away from targeting institutional and cultural records to personal ones. (talk about MARS TRILOGY if time) Personal records add flavor to the fonds, and help archives hook new fans who can be mobilized as stakeholders.
  31. 31. 31 How do personal records help us think differently about more traditional archival practice? Are personal records the wedge some of us have been looking for that might problematize archival workflows, "ordinary" archival activity, archival hierarchies and power relations as inscribed in or performed by the collection? As I have sometimes wondered about home movies, does PDA "queer" the repository? Or do we need to find a new paradigm for thinking about personal archival activity in all of its realms that looks far outside the language of archiving? I want to steer our home movie collection into this space, so here's a call for collaboration.
  32. 32. Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Wakefield, UK 32 Also, and this is a tremendously complex issue of which others have already spoken at this conference, the divide between scholars and librarians/archivists is artificial and generally nonproductive. This divide is manifested in status, in workflow, and in language. Theorists who do not work in archives project all sorts of ideas onto what they call "the archive." For them archives can be blank screens, even playthings. And scholars and producers regard us as repositories for what they WISH we collected made available in the ways they WANT to use it. We spend a lot of time resisting the identities projected onto us. But only a few scholars speak with archivists directly. Few have spent even a day processing or arranging a new accession, rewinding film, or shifting cans from one vault to another. Workflow is almost totally absent in academic discussions of "the archive." And yet workflow is far more political, far more potent in its effects on archives than a hundred conferences.
  33. 33. 3 Feb 2015 33 I'll stop riding on this tweet shortly, but today I'd like to try and rein in our language. Most writers and artists use the terms interchangeably without interrogating the difference between them, but the imprecision surrounding "the archives" and "the archive" ought to be vexing to archivists. An unstable amalgam of the unconscious and quotidian, the "archive" is an undemanding construct, an impossibly broad discourse. It serves the critical disciplines as they interact with history and memory without necessarily requiring deep engagement. For artists, writers and theorists, "the archive" is terra nullius, open for unchallenged occupation.
  34. 34. 34 "The archive" invites flirtation; the "archives," on the other hand, could not be more demanding. Though their workplaces may seem quiet and their workflows may pretend to appear apolitical, "archives" overflow with contention. To collect is to commit to the survival of certain records over others; to arrange and describe is often to enclose; to preserve is to resist power, violence and constraint; to proffer access is to invite misunderstanding aggression. And yet "archives" yearn for praxis; even the quietest archival labor is practice in search of theory.
  35. 35. 35 I hope you'll excuse my rather polarized treatment of these terms, because I hope we can move towards reuniting these terms and the practices to which they refer. Could we try to draw connections between academic, artistic and archival labor? And could we try to link the conceptual umbrella we call "the archive" with the more quotidian work of "the archives"? This might mean listening harder to the people who perform archival labor -- thinking of it as cultural work or research rather than simply wage labor -- and incorporating a more materialist sense of the meaning and importance of archival work based on the work itself, not simply the externalities that influence most decisions archives make. For some time we have considered access to information to be a prime metric for assessing degrees of power and agency. But what kind of social and power relations are embedded in archival workflow? How do our often unexamined assumptions about how archives should be administered and worked affect the position of the archives in society? And how does it influence the use humanists make of our collections? In what arena can we most easily cause change? Is it within the institutional setting, or is it within more informal environments?
  36. 36. new enclosure 36 TOWARD THE FUTURE: I am concerned about the prospect of a "new enclosure." Special collections might be caught in a bind between new copyright regs for orphan works, etc. increasing monetization, etc., and the demands of a newer generation, especially from computationally-based sectors like DH, who recognize fewer if any boundaries blocking full access (touching etc.) We are worried about the impositions of new regimes of copyright, especially as regards orphan works. I am especially worried about extended collective licensing, which will not serve archives and special collections well.
  37. 37. 37 We're in the Anthropocene, and I suspect environmental thinking and ecocriticism could contribute frameworks to archival thinking. Lately I'm looking at the permaculture principles diagram, which at least at some points around the clock could be read as an archival manifesto. I'm also interested in the issue of archival accountability seen through an environmental prism. Could we consider putting our intentions and desired outcomes on the record through acquisition, preservation and access impact statements?
  38. 38. 38 I want to end by crediting Robert C. Binkley, who died in 1940, for his assistance in guiding my thinking about these ideas. He suggested that independent and unaccredited scholars had a role to play in collecting and processing archival materials and in scholarship, promoted multiple media formats, and imagined an open, multithreaded system of scholarly communication that today we can read as a prefiguration of the Internet and the turn towards digital humanities.
  39. 39. 39 When I was young the best holiday present a child could have was an electric train set. But today electric trains have become specialized playthings for adults. Simple wooden train sets are back in vogue. I take this to mean that we cannot necessarily assume that the current fascination with technological tools and digitality will last forever, and that as Raymond Williams suggests, we are living in a culture where the emergent and residual coexist and interact. As we speed into the Anthropocene and plunge into the digital vortex, I would hope that we remember that core tenet of conservatorship - reversibility of process. Let's not deny change, but let's also remember that much of the future will lie in the unresolved past.
  40. 40. rick@ucsc.edu @footage Detroit, February 2011 40 THANK YOU.