The Accidental Archivist: Mike Mashon, Head of Moving Image Section, Library of Congress

Mike Mashon, Head of Moving Image Section of the Library of Congress
Mike Mashon, head of Moving Image Section of the Library of Congress

“I never really intended to be an archivist,” says Mike Mashon, after recounting his diverse educational background.  Mashon, the Head of Moving Image Section at the Library of Congress, received his undergraduate degree in Microbiology from Louisiana State University, going on to pursue a Master’s in the same field at the University of Texas. Working for the Texas Department of Health, he was the first person the organization ever hired to conduct research on AIDS.  Yet the longer he worked with science, the less he wanted to make it a career.

Mashon’s early involvement with what would eventually become the South by Southwest Festival, as well as his presence on the University of Texas Film Committee, rekindled his long-standing love of movies and television.  Earning a Master’s in Radio/TV/Film at Texas, he obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Maryland in 1996, writing his thesis on the relationship between advertising agencies and television networks in the 1940s and 1950s.  After serving as curator at the Library of American Broadcasting, he became Curator of Moving Images for the Library of Congress in 1998, a position he held until being named the Head of the Moving Image Section in 2005.

The National Audio Visual Conservation Center
The National Audio Visual Conservation Center

At the National Audio Visual Conservation Center (NAVCC), Mashon oversees the cataloging, processing, physical integrity, storage and preservation of film and video, also conducting personnel management and setting goals and budgets for the fiscal year.  Mashon also attends National Film Preservation Board meetings, advising on which films will be added to the National Film Registry every year.  Although administrative work encompasses the majority of his duties (Mashon jokes he is a “mid-level government bureaucrat”), he is especially interested in outreach and access initiatives, particularly when it comes to the NAVCC’s online presence.

Since little moving image content has been added to the Library’s web site in the past decade, Mashon is working to expand the NAVCC’s web presence by creating a blog and making videos about the organization’s workflows operations.  He recently acquired an HD camera to start making informational videos about the preservation process at the NAVCC, following a film or tape through the entirety of the preservation process, with the finished product being the film itself available online.  Mashon notes that one of the goals of the NAVCC is to provide outreach services not only to the local community but to members of the archival field as well – these informational videos would undoubtedly be an excellent resource for fellow archivists.

With the Library of Congress beginning to change its web architecture, it is becoming increasingly efficient to get moving image content on the web.  Mashon spoke at length of the NAVCC’s more than 3,000 paper prints, which he deems “the crown jewel of our collection.”  Paper prints were used to establish copyright in the early days of cinema, between the years 1894-1912, and Mashon notes “[you] can’t really write a meaningful history of American film without referring to the paper prints.”  A number of the films in this collection have been transferred to other formats (16mm, 35mm), but only 500 of them – scans of 35mm reprints from the 1990s – are available online.  Mashon notes that the only way a person would be able to view the remaining 2,500 prints in the collection would be to go to Washington D.C. – his goal is to eventually have the entirety of the collection scanned for access, using technologies such as the MWA Vario to scan 16mm negatives in real-time.  Although the resulting files won’t be subjected to much digital cleanup other than speed correction, Mashon notes that the convenience of researchers not having to travel to D.C. makes this a worthy endeavor.

One of the paper prints held by the Library of Congress
One of the paper prints held by the Library of Congress

For those interested in film archiving work, Mashon advises that archivists starting out in the field need to be comfortable with digital technologies and metadata, as opportunities to use preservation experience skills will shrink over time. Many of the NAVCC technicians have degrees in library science rather than film preservation, emphasizing the importance of well-rounded skills.  Mashon remarks that while the physical work of film preservation requires no small amount of skill, cataloging conistently proves to be an enormous challenge.  Thus, a library science background will come in handy for the important task of information management.

Regarding the future of film preservation, Mashon remarks that he is slightly optimistic despite the inevitability of film stock production ceasing. He would like to see the creation of digital cinema packages at the NAVCC, noting that, while continuing to make prints would be ideal, only a handful of facilities would be able to screen these prints in the future.  One example is that of significant film-print restorations the NAVCC has undertaken, for films such as Baby Face and All Quiet on the Western Front.  While Mashon would like for audiences to be able to appreciate these films on the medium for which they were intended, he does not want to deny access to those facilities that may only be able to screen digital cinema packages.   “If you’re not going to make it available to people as widely as possible – you’re just going to shut it away in a dark archive – there’s hardly any point in doing it,” he adds.

Mashon finds his work fulfilling, and he is quick to note the hard work undertaken by his employees at the NAVCC:  “There’s nothing quite like being able to share the work of the Library of Congress with others. I’m always very humbled by that because I’m just representing the many wonderful people I work with who do the hands-on work.”

Perhaps most striking about Mashon is his passion about ensuring access for future generations of film lovers.  “Film, television and radio are such powerful communicative media that we feel that is definitely worth our best effort to make sure that it’ll be preserved for those future generations.”

~Kaitlin Conner

Profile of a Film Archivist: David Francis

I recently had the pleasure of conducting an email interview with British film archivist, David Francis. Over the course of his prolific career, Mr. Francis has served as the Curator of the UK’s National Television and Film Archive (a division of the British Film Institute) as well as the Chief of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division at the Library of Congress, in addition to other positions. I asked David to comment on his background and these experiences in order to paint a picture of the field over time.

Background

Francis was introduced to the world of film early in life. As his parents were members of a 35mm Film Society, the family attended film viewings regularly. This interest was later renewed through programming work for the Film Society at the London School of Economics, where he eventually received a BSc in Economics with a specialization in International Relations. In 1959, he began working as the Television Acquisitions Officer at the National Television and Film Archive, where he developed a television collection; a type of collection that had not existed in film archives until that point. He eventually worked his way up to the Curator position in 1974 where he remained until 1989, working on projects such as the J. Paul Getty, Jnr. Conservation Centre and the Museum of the Moving Image in London. In 1990, he left the UK to accept a contract at the Library of Congress. This turned into a more permanent position as became Chief not long after this contract ended. Francis stayed with the LoC until 2001.

Shot of the (former) Museum of the Moving Image in London.
Shot of the (former) Museum of the Moving Image in London.

Advocating for Moving Image Preservation

I asked David to comment on some his experiences advocating for moving image preservation. While at the British National Film Archive, he established the 24 Year Nitrate Preservation Scheme which allowed the Archive to duplicate approximately five million feet of nitrate film every year through government funding. He also organized a FIAF Symposium entitled “Cinema 1900-1906.”

“Up till that time (1978), film archives had been mainly interested in collecting the classic European silent and sound films. They were not interested in their national cinema…or in cinema before the coming of the first feature films. I had, however, always been interested in the relationship between the screen experience before 1895 and its influence on the first 20 years of the cinema’s creative development. We had acquired many titles from the first decade of cinema but could not make many of them available because we did not have the resources. I asked my archival colleagues around the world to send me all the films they had from the period at the Archive’s expense. I would then make two duplicate negative and two positive copies in our laboratory and send the original, one safety negative and a positive back to the archives and keep the others in our collection. In the end we assembled over 600 titles and screened them to a small group of international scholars. They then chose the titles they thought most interesting and these were screened at the Symposium. I think it would not be unreasonable to say that this Symposium paved the way for the study of early cinema.”

At the Library of Congress, Francis successfully implemented new legislation for the National Film Registry, which required the Librarian of Congress to conduct a “Study on the Current State of Film Preservation.” However, his attempts to do the same for television did not come to fruition.

“Congress indicated very clearly that as far as they were concerned film and television were not separate entities and they would not be prepared to fund a National Television Registry. Actually the film and television industries, although intertwined, are jealous of each other and would never have agreed to collaborate on a joint film and television programme.”

Comparing and Contrasting the BFI and MBRS

Having worked in both British and U.S. archives, Francis holds a unique perspective in the field. When I asked him to compare and contrast these experiences, he explained that while the two archives were similar in size, they remained different in other ways, particularly regarding funding.

“The British Film Institute was a QUANGO—a quasi autonomous non-governmental organization. It received funds from the government through the Ministry of the Arts but was not directly accountable for the way in which the funds were used. The Library of Congress is funded directly by Congress and considered by Congress as its library. However unlike most other archives in the United States the Library received some governmental funding although it had to also raise private funds if it was to meet its responsibilities. The National Film Archive section of the British Film Institute relied on private donations to build its film collections. The National Film Archive section of the BFI relied on private donations to build its film collections. There is no Statutory deposit for films in the UK. The Library builds its current collections through copyright deposits but relies on donations to fill gaps. The National Film Archive was a relatively un-bureaucratic organization and as Curator I was given a lot of freedom to achieve the Archive’s goals. I appointed all my own staff and managed all our budgets. The Library of Congress was very bureaucratic with checks and balances at every level. One had to compete for funding and staff with other Divisions.”

Changes Over Time

Beginning his career in 1959, Francis has experienced many of the great changes in the field. One he notes specifically is the improving relationship with film producers and distributors.

“In the 1960s one had to bribe producers and distributors to donate films. We organized a slap up party at Christmas and only invited staff from companies that participated. We invited the vault managers as well as the managing director because sometimes although we were refused donations officially, we received material unofficially from the vault manager. Another more dubious method of acquiring film was to bribe the driver of the Celluloid Products van who came to collect junk nitrate film for its silver value, to let us go through the films he already had on his van and substitute films of an equal or greater silver value. Even today, producers and distributors are still wary of film archives because they are concerned that they might screen copyrighted films without written permission. However they see the advantage of helping an organization that will store little used materials in ideal conditions free of charge.”

He also mentions the changing role and intentions of the film archive itself.

“When I started at the National Film Archive, the role of an archive was to collect films made by the classic European directors not to concentrate, as today, on the films made in one’s own country. Also scant attention was given to the films made in the first two decades of cinema history, short films, documentary subjects, newsreels or amateur film. These categories are now recognized as just as important as the feature film and, in fact, more important because they will not survive without the help of archives.”

Future Implications for Moving Image Archives

To overcome the challenges of digitization,

“Archives must be more like museums. Archives still control important information although even this position is threatened as more and more 20th century productions are digitized. The screening of a unique restored print in the archive cinema must be an experience to treasure and look forward to. I personally still feel that archives should use digital media to make films available widely, as long as it is still possible to see celluloid copies of the same titles projected in archive cinemas or other approved venues. The digital experience often appears to be technically superior but it is a different experience from watching a film in a darkened auditorium together.”

Furthermore, he voices his concern about the future of celluloid.

“Archives don’t have access to changing technology. When they preserve a film on celluloid they know they can store it in a controlled environment and it will retain its quality and accessibility. It will always be possible to build film projectors because they are mechanical not electronic. A digital master might need to be refreshed every five or so years and archives may not have access to the funds or equipment to do this on a regular basis. If they miss one refreshment stage, the digital master may become inaccessible. A lot of people will argue against this view and we will not know who was correct until we reach the 100 year mark but I believe archives must be conservative and never put the future of the moving image heritage at risk.”

My final question to David asked his opinion of the skills today’s archivists should possess.

“Archivists today have to be politicians, fund raisers and film historians who have the stage presence to make their knowledge exciting to the general public. Even although they must ensure that an archive is supported financially, policy must be based on what they believe should be done not on what others want them to do. Archives should only be big enough to achieve what can reasonably be done. An Archive can be too large as well as too small. If it is too large the head of the archive may not be able to devote enough time to determining policy, explaining it to staff and encouraging them to be part of the archive team.”

francis

 ~Susan Bogner

“The Fieldworker Is The First Archivist”: An Interview With Guha Shankar Of The American Folklife Center At The Library Of Congress

Guha Shankar is a Folklife Specialist at the American Folklife Center (AFC) at the Library of Congress (LC). Dr. Shankar sums up his career in this field as combining his “creative and political inclinations — documentary productions accomplished in a collaborative fashion with scholars and community members from under-represented and marginal communities so as to represent their cultural practices to a wider audience, and also and crucially, help preserve a permanent archival record of cultural forms under stress from dominant forces.” Dr. Shankar received his B.A. in Radio, Television, and Film and Political Science in 1982 from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and went on to complete a Ph.D. in Anthropology at the University of Texas-Austin in 2003, specializing in Folklore and Public Culture.  Past professional experience includes almost a decade as a Media Production Specialist and Film Editor at the Smithsonian Institution’s Center for Folklife Programs in Washington, D.C. in the 1980s and 1990s. Currently, Dr. Shankar holds a wide range of responsibilities at the Library of Congress, explaining that, “our (AFC’s) work as public folklorists is intertwined with the LC’s mission to provide our patrons with access to the records of the nation’s artistic, intellectual and cultural legacy in perpetuity. Following on from that, the mission of the Center is to promote and preserve the nation and the world’s documentation of folk traditions.”

AmericanFolklifeCenter-Logo.svg

Dr. Shankar outlined several key endeavors of the AFC with regards to this mission:

  • The preservation of audio-visual and other documentary materials of traditional cultural forms (song, dance, speech, etc.)
  • Providing access to these materials to both the broader public, and specifically to communities of origin
  • Providing technical training in documentary and oral history production and archival principles via workshops and field schools
  • Conducting in-house and collaborative documentary projects on a wide range of topics regarding cultural heritage, politics, and history

In his position at the AFC, Dr. Shankar works on a number of training initiatives, such as AFC’s long-standing Field Schools for Cultural Documentation for university students and community scholars. In the last few years, the field school model has been applied to the Cultural Documentation for Indigenous Communities, in which Dr. Shankar and his colleagues work with distinct cultural groups such as the Maasai of Kenya and the Rastafari and Maroons of Jamaica. By collaborating with groups and individuals who wish to acquire knowledge of and skills in the methods and technologies necessary to document and preserve elements of their culture that are meaningful to them, Dr. Shankar hopes to level the playing field with regard to the issue of representation. The problem of representation is a long-standing issue in ethnographic work, the central tension being the extent to which the perspective of the fieldworker or academic researcher supersedes the voice(s) and views of other cultures and communities, and Dr. Shankar discusses this issue in a recent article for the International Journal of Intangible Cultural Heritage. However, the sustainability of these projects is a continuing challenge for Dr. Shankar and his colleagues. It was not so very long ago that audio cassette machines were the primary device used in fieldwork; to some extent video cassettes were also part of an individual fieldworker’s toolkit.  Now, however, the preservation and security of audiovisual cultural heritage materials has become exponentially more complicated with the advent of portable, readily available digital audio and moving image tools, which have replaced analog recorders virtually overnight. The digital revolution has resulted in a marked shift in the use of recording technologies in the AFC’s training programs  but also initiated a more fundamental re-thinking of the challenges of long-term archival storage of the materials.   Dr. Shankar said in his interview with me, with tongue in cheek, that “in the past, ‘archive’ could be a shoebox, so long as you numbered your cassette tapes.”  So, what is to be done with the born-digital sound and moving image works that is now being created by community-based fieldworkers?  They have to have IT storage and a robust asset management program in place to keep these items accessible. Even with the advantages of many people being able to record video and audio on smartphones, for instance, Dr. Shankar makes management and sustainability a focus of the training programs. “How are you going to make these stories accessible?” He says. “What is your plan for long -term storage?”  Media archivists have to alert community-led documentation projects to the many unanticipated, technological challenges they will face.  As Dr. Shankar notes, “the fieldworker is the first archivist – and also is going to have to be the IT manager in some way”. Currently Dr. Shankar’s efforts are focused on a collaboration between the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (which is slated to open to the public in 2015). The Civil Rights History Project is both a survey of existing oral histories and repositories and a venture seeking to record new interviews with Movement participants.  More information can be found here.

“Folklife is an integral part of all American lives and an essential part of the National Library. The story of America is reflected in the cultural productions of ordinary people who live everyday lives, from cooking and eating meals, to the activities of work and play, to religious observances and seasonal celebration.” –The American Folklife Center

~Josephine McRobbie

IULFA and FIAF

On November 20th, 2011, the Indiana University Libraries Film Archive (IULFA) was admitted into the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF). To date, only 17 film archives in the United States are FIAF members. This blog post will discuss what FIAF is, a brief history of FIAF, and IULFA’s member status is a big deal.

FIAF was founded in Paris in 1938. Initially there were only 4 members. Though we might think of film preservation and archives as a more recent phenomenon, there was already a concern among cineastes, curators/programmers, filmmakers, and critics over the life of film. These sentiments had already existed in the 1920s. The Library of Congress and the Museum of Modern Art (NY) took an interest in film, adding them to their collection while

The exterior of the Cinémathèque Française

cinema was still a young medium. The original four members that banded together in 1938 included the Museum of Modern Art, the Cinémathèque Française, the British Film
 Institute, and the Reichsfilmarchiv in Berlin (however, this archive was ransacked by Soviet troops in 1945). Since its conception in 1938, the organization has expanded its membership to archives in over 75 countries.

FIAF stated aims are:

  • to uphold a code of ethics for film preservation and practical standards for all areas of film archive work
  • to promote the creation of moving image archives in countries which lack them
  • to seek the improvement of the legal context within which film archives carry out their work
  • to promote film culture and facilitate historical research on both a national and international level
  • to foster training and expertise in preservation and other archive techniques
  • to ensure the permanent availability of material from the collections for study and research by the wider community
  • to encourage the collection and preservation of documents and materials relating to the cinema
  • to develop cooperation between members and “to ensure the international availability of films and documents”.

Simply having a collection is not enough for inclusion into FIAF. In addition to collections, archives should have some kind of long-term and developed plan for preservation. This would include proper storage facilities. IULFA’s collections reside in the Auxiliary Library Facility. Because we have our collections in an environment that will prolong film’s life for 250 years we have one of the best archival storage facilities among FIAF members.

FIAF also encourages greater interaction and cooperation within the archival world. They are engaged in issues of film preservation and restoration, digitization, and access. Every year FIAF organizes the Annual Congress where members come to formally discuss business and participate in workshops. IULFA archivist Rachael Stoeltje represented IU at the Annual Congress in Beijing this past spring.  FIAF also publishes the Journal of Film Preservation.

IULFA is honored to be part of such an historically important organization. We are excited to be participants in the global conversation on the role  of film archives and preservation. FIAF membership will also lead other archival institutions to our doorstep. Being a member means we can develop relationships with other film archives and expose people to our collections and state-of-the-art facility.

~Sean Smalley