22 Oct 2012

Advice for Archival Study: paper resources for film

Tips for working in a film archive (paper resources and ephemera)

When someone says ‘film archive’, you might assume they mean old projectors, flammable film stock, concrete bunkers and digitized home movies.

Not exactly, in my experience at least. The study of ‘film’ is rarely just the text itself – it is the text embedded in context, industrial and cultural, and its interrelation with a vast array of other histories – advertising, leisure, urban development, print culture, visual culture, local industry, etc.

My own film archive experience is in this sense far more paper-based than moving image based. As someone who works with a history of cinema as one of cinemagoing, what people see on cinema screens is obviously just as important as how, where, why they see it, and questions about these practices cannot be researched or inferred through films texts alone.

While paper materials often accompany the big film archive centres that focus predominantly upon housing and preserving moving images – the BFI, for example, holds some 45,000 books, 20,000 unpublished scripts, 6000 collections of personal papers and 2,000 items of cinema ephemera plus 4 million still images – some centres, like the Bill Douglas Centre and Exeter, are exclusively ephemera based, retaining everything but the moving image itself.

The idea of a film archive as an exclusive entity is in itself problematic, just as a ‘literary’ archive very rarely contains only paper and text. You will find film related ephemera and material present in numerous other kinds of holdings and repositories not exclusively designated for film. When researching the filmmaker Elinor Glyn, for example, business records relating to her work with British film companies and major American studios in the 1920s were to be found in Reading Special Collections – by no means a film archive, but of course a logical home for the work of a woman who, despite professing herself as the ‘ savior of the British film industry’ was, first and foremost, a novelist.

Tip 1, therefore, is an obvious point, but worth stressing -- spread the net as wide as possible in beginning any kind of research that may seem on the surface relatively discipline-exclusive. Archiveshub  is one of the best ways to keyword search and throw up locations for materials, rather than going straight to a film archive to find, say, documents relating a screenplay writer or director. You may find materials housed in the most unexpected places, just as these materials themselves before they reach the archive are found in the most unexpected places (the original cut of Carl Dreyer’s haunting 1928 silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc, for example, was thought lost for decades after a fire destroyed the master negative until rediscovered in the janitor’s closet of a mental institution in Norway some 50 years later).

Tip 2: Ephemera is confusing stuff. It’s fascinating, frequently amusing in its quirkiness, and will suck hours of your research time as you sift through a hundred weird and wonderful postcards or cigarette cards or deeply ugly Monroe memorabilia ...
Monroe dish: Peter Jewell Collection Bill Douglas Centre

...but what to do with all this critically can be daunting. How do you turn a bunch of interesting, fleeting, ephemeral stuff into something more concrete? The BDC’s curator Phil Wickham helps in explaining that the archive contains a history of film culture positioned in ‘the nexus between text and context’ where ephemera ‘can make meaning and create evidence’ (2010: 316). In considering that nexus, any research questions you take into the archive have to be broad enough to effectively accommodate the sometimes seeming randomness of what it contains, but structured enough to bring these material to bear on your project and its aims. My advice in this respect is to utilize the catalogue and squeeze as much info as possible out of it as possible to request the right things where you may be overwhelmed otherwise by a volume of materials, but also to utilize the archivist or curator wherever possible as a key resource—no one knows more about the collection that you’re using than them, after all.

Tip 3: Consider the practicalities of the kind of note taking you want do to. You may be working with objects rather than manuscripts – things that can’t be photocopied or transcribed for more detailed study later on. Always take a digital camera and check if you can use it to enable you to revisit, if possible, the materials you’ve encountered. Any archive is often about the tangible quality of working first hand with materials, but with film ephemera – toys, memorabilia --  these are things that were always meant to be handled, and that experience is significant and worth attempting to retain when writing up your findings.

Works cited

  • Wickham, Phil. 2010. Scrap books, soap dishes, and screen dreams: ephemera, everyday life and cinema history. New Review of Film and Television Studies, 8(3), 315-30.