Interview with Alex Cherian, Film Archivist at San Francisco State University for the San Francisco Bay Area Television Archive

Conducted by Kara Van Malssen on November 7, 2009 at the Association of Moving Image Archivists Conference in the Millennium Hotel St. Louis, MO.

Kara Van Malssen (KVM): Ok, this is Kara Van Malssen and the date is November 7, 2009. I am here with Alex Cherian, (Is that right? Great.) and we’re conducting this interview in the Millenium Hotel in St. Louis at the Association of Moving Image Archivists Conference. And thanks for agreeing to participate in this interview. I’ll just start by asking you where do you work and what is your job title?

Alex Cherian (AC): My name is Alex Cherian. I work as the Film Archivist for the San Francisco State University Special Collections. We’re a sub-division of the Department of Special Collections, and its called San Francisco Bay Area Television Archive.

KVM: Ok. So that’s a sub-division of the San Francisco State University Archives?

AC: San Francisco State has its J Paul Leonard Library. The Library has the Department of Special Collections, and we are technically a sub-division of the Department of Special Collections.

KVM: Ok, great. And just briefly, what kind of appointment do you have? Is it full time? Part time?

AC: Currently it’s temporary half-time. With the added freedom that as long as I’m working on the collection I can work up to full time as a consultant. So I pretty much work 50% with full benefits, which is pretty good, and the other 50%, which for the last few months has been pretty much all the time, working with the collection but I’m being paid either by film production companies or local TV stations, or both in some cases.

KVM: Wow! That’s a unique situation.

AC: The librarian has been very flexible because she understands that if I’m not working on the collection, it’s not being developed. As long as the collection is benefitting there’s no conflict there at all and she’s been very progressive in the way she’s looked at that situation.

KVM: Ok. I’m going to come back and ask you more questions about how that scenario came about but... No I’m going to ask you that now. Ok, how did that scenario come about, and how does it work that the funding is coming from those outside?

AC: Ok, the situation came about, to put in briefly into context, I began working for the University as a full-time volunteer, working essentially for free, quite typically more than 40 hours a week. That was partly because when I immigrated to this country there was a period of time when I was legally allowed to work but not allowed to earn money. And also because I didn’t want a black hole in my resume. And I obviously wanted to show that I would be a good worker for San Francisco State. And so whilst I was working for them a project came up which would be funded by the University to work with the collection from a local politician. I got full time work there but after a while, because of state budget cuts, they could only really afford 50%. Because by that point we’d built up a momentum of developing the collection, and also started to look at applying for grants, I went and spoke to my boss and to the Librarian and said that, “Look, are you going to be ok with me working for free again as well as the half-time?” And they actually said to me, “Well, if you are able to secure money from outside sources to work with the collection, as long the work you’re doing with the equipment doesn’t involve working with collections that aren’t at San Francisco State, the go ahead, and as long as you handle the tax, then go ahead and work up to full time.”

KVM: So you were in charge of finding your own funding?

AC: I am consistently in charge of finding my own funding. But because I work part time for the University I am able to apply for federal grants and for other grants under the umbrella of the University and all the benefits you get by being part of a library in a higher education institution. So it’s actually because of Senior Management’s flexibility, it is the best of both worlds, except for I have no job security.

KVM: Yeah. And I imagine it must take a lot of your time to do the fundraising for yourself.

AC: Yes. I work very long hours, quite often 7 days a week. But I’m obviously doing what I love. And this is hopefully a way I can edge toward having financial security and the collection being developed at the same time. So whilst my stamina is good I’m going to keep up with that.

KVM: Wow! That’s really impressive. I’m impressed. So how long has that situation been going on? When did you start the volunteer work at the Library?

AC: I started volunteering with the Library either July or August of 2007. And I worked for them for a minimum of three months full time, and then I started to get paid either on a full time basis or on a part time basis, or for certain projects the librarian would authorize my working what’s referred to as “additional hours,” which in effect is me working a full week for periods of a few months. And we will discuss that on a project-by-project basis. So I have to pitch a project and see whether or not the Library is willing to pay me full time. If not, then I will look for outside sources of funding.

KVM: Ok, so it’s been a little over two years now?

AC: Yeah, that financial arrangement has been going on for two years.

KVM: Where were you before that, and how did you end up in San Francisco, because I know you are not from the US?

AC: No, I started volunteering as a film archivist at the Northwest Film Archive in Manchester, England, in the Spring of 2003. And whilst I was volunteering there, everyone seemed to agree that if I wanted to get into film archiving professionally I needed to take a master’s degree. And there was the course at Norwich at the University of East Anglia. So I applied to take that course, which I did, with a view to wanting to work in Manchester. I did the course, I did an internship in San Francisco at American Zoetrope with Francis Coppola film archivist James Mockoski, who had taken the course at Norwich a few years before. And during the course of that internship I was introduced to my wife, Melissa.

KVM: Oh, thats great!

AC: Yeah, so I ended the course very shortly after I returned from San Francisco, graduated and was accepted at a full time position at Manchester. So I got exactly what I was aiming for, at which point I had started dating my wife in San Francisco and it took me a while to find a way to come into this country. I tried to get a work visa whilst working full time in Manchester with no luck (it’s quite difficult). And eventually we decided to get married, which is how I wound up in San Francisco in March 2007. I volunteered for three months full time at Oddball Film and Video with Stephen Parr, and then I started looking around, knowing at some point I’d have to start earning money and saw the collection at San Francisco State seemed to be kind of just lying there because they didn’t have anyone there who was able to develop it so I thought I’d start working for them.

KVM: How did you become aware of that collection?>

AC: I talked to a lot of people. There were quite a few researchers who were saying that up until the point that the previous original curator Helene Whitson was there (she retired in 2004), they had fairly reasonable access to the collection. After she left, and I believe it’s because there was no one there who had any film handling skills, access to the collection apparently became quite hard and so people were having conversations: “Have you managed to get at the Film in San Francisco? It’s slow and they’re trying to help but they can’t.” And it just struck me that everyone agreed there was a great collection there and the consensus was also that currently it was difficult to get access to it, and it seemed like a reasonable assumption that I could try and help.

KVM: That’s great. Seems like it worked out. Ok, so I’m going to move on to questions about the collection. What kind of material can be found there? What range of media?

AC: Ok, the range of media. We have 16mm newsfilm, which is almost exclusively 16mm color magnetic soundtrack. We also have 16mm optical documentary footage. Also 16mm color magnetic documentary footage. We have a decent amount of 3/4” U-Matic tape, both U-Matic and U-Matic SP. We have a few 2” video tapes, a few 1” video tapes, and a few VHS tapes as well. There’s approximately just over 4000 hours of footage in total covering the period 1948 until about 2003.

KVM: So then that seems to indicate they’re not acquiring new collections or are they?

AC: The collection originally came to San Francisco State in the early 1980s because a lot of the local TV stations were discarding their film assets because of the shift over to video tape. Whilst Helene Whitson was still there, she was accepting a certain amount of local Emmy Award winning news footage and other programs from I guess the late 90s through 2003. But the vast majority of the collection goes up until about 1980, which is when the film pretty much stops, with the odd exception.

KVM: And is the bulk of the 4000 hours 16mm or is it more video? AC: The bulk of the collection, well over 3000 hours, is 16mm film. Most of that is the outtakes and trims from the news teams, so nearly all of the broadcasts that aired were destroyed way back in the 80s or before. The outtakes and trims of the footage shot by the news crew, be or 30 seconds or in some cases 30-40 minutes, which was either too controversial, not considered snappy enough for the time, or it just didn’t make it past the editing room, that was stashed into cans. And fortunately that’s what was save and cataloged very well by Helene. So in many cases a lot of the film hasn’t actually been touched since it was in the editing room. So it’s actually in decent condition, but it needs a heck of a lot of intensive preservation work to get it to the point where you can work with it.

KVM: So what was the state of the collection when you first arrived?

AC: When I arrived the person who was in charge of Special Collections had the resources -- it had been stashed in the John Paul Leonard Library in pretty much any available space because it took up a lot of volume. My immediate predecessor had boxed everything up into archival boxes and had them shipped to an offsite storage facility in Richmond [CA]. Somewhere in the region of 1600 or 1700 banker-sized boxes of material. So if you wanted to gain access to the material you had to call it from the storage facility, which took 24 hours, so it wasn’t that difficult, but there weren’t that many physical assets on site. I believe that’s because there was no one in the Library who felt comfortable working with them.

KVM: Yeah, that makes sense. So when you started this position, you were really the first one to have this role, or was there someone [else]? You said there was someone in the past but that sounded like slightly different...?

AC: Bearing in mind I only know this from conversations with those concerned, but in passing... The librarian there was self trained. Over the years as she came to the AMIA [Association of Moving Image Archivist] conference and spoke with people, she got a very good basic understanding of how to work hands on with the film. And she would have a series of volunteers who were either previously trained or trained by her to work on the film, to get it to a point where it was on an archival reel, in a box, and accurately labeled and cataloged. The quality of work can vary but I think that’s partly because amongst volunteers there were also people who were paying off parking tickets and things like that who may or may not have been enthusiastic.

KVM: Yeah. So that means they were doing community service or something there?

AC: Yeah. I think the community service people were mostly doing cataloging rather than hands on the film. But, well, I’m almost certain of that, but I don’t know for sure.

KVM: Ok, that’s interesting. I actually didn’t know that you could do that in a library.

AC: I wasn’t aware.

KVM: Hopefully we don’t have to try that anytime [soon]. Ok, so in the larger library, are there media media collections that can be found other than this one?

AC: Yes, there is a fairly large and well-cataloged collection of, amongst other things, 16mm film and video tape, in what’s referred to as AV Services, which is kind of linked to the Library but isn’t strictly speaking with the Library. It’s more associated with the Department of Academic Technology. They have their own engineers, they have their own equipment. And now and again they’ll get in touch with me and say, “Hey, we found this reel of 16mm film, are you interested in working with it?” And typically I’ll say yes. But the two, when I arrived there, it was understood to be distinctly separate from each other.

KVM: Right. And the other Special Collections, or parts of Special Collections, don’t seem to have as much in the way of media collections?

AC: It’s mostly manuscripts, paper. There’s a very large audio archive featuring old records and recordings and whatnot. There was some moving image footage relating to San Francisco State, which went back quite a long way, and that is kind of shared, partly by the Department of Special Collections and the TV Archive. The TV Archive was always, and is, a part of the Library Special Collections.

KVM: Right. So when you came along they were less concerned that you didn’t have library training, but really happy that you had the specific moving image training, it seems like.

AC: Yes, I had to prove myself. A lot of people are trying to work as moving image archivists, I mean some might not necessarily be able to work within the library system, but they might find it difficult to deal with the regulations or want to hit the ground running, when in fact I had to work for several months before I was given more access to and more responsibility for the collection.

KVM: Ok. Within the Special Collections and the Library, what are the lines of authority that you’re working in?

AC: Ok. Whilst I’ve been at San Francisco State, the Department of Special Collections has had some quite drastic staff cuts. Originally when I arrived there was a Head of Special Collections, who would report to the Head of Collections, who in turn would report to the Librarian. And there were members of staff for the different parts of Special Collections. Right now, there’s only really myself as Film Archivist, a Curator of Special Collections, there is no longer a Head of Special Collections. I report to the Library’s Head of Collections, who in turn reports to the Librarian.

AC: Ok. So it sounds like it’s quite small staffed.

KVM: The reason it’s small staffed right now is the Library at San Francisco State is going through a very large refit of the main building. Work began last year and it will continue for a minimum of three years. There was a fairly strong chance that the TV Archive might be put into what’s referred to as “deep storage” for the duration of that period, which would mean that no one could get access to it. Fortunately we were able to find some space in San Francisco State’s Downtown campus, which is actually closer to the TV stations, and it’s also easier for access for the users. So we moved there in October 2008. And so we managed to keep the services open. So I actually work down there pretty much on my own but I obviously call and visit the main campus on a regular basis.

KVM: Right. And speaking of the television stations’ proximity, are you having, are some of your users actually from the television system, or are they mostly scholars and researchers?

AC: The majority of our users are actually filmmakers and researchers. After that there’s probably an even split between the TV stations stations themselves wanting to gain access to their own material, so a producer or an executive producer will phone me up at the last minute and say, “Have you got footage of this riot?” Most of them are surprised that they have an “archive,” and the rest will be faculty members, staff members, and students from San Francisco State who get access to the collection for free.

KVM: So then, since your arrival, has there been...there must have been quite an increase in access since the collections are becoming more accessible?

AC: Very much so, yes.

KVM: Can you say....Can you quantify the increase in access?

AC: Bearing in mind there was a lot of access pre-2004, between 2004-2007 I’m guessing there was less than 100 completed access inquiries. Initially when I arrived I would probably be working on anything between 10 to 20 projects per month. And once we started to make our material available online, which is from December 2008 onwards, our access is into the tens of thousands now. It’s taken off.

KVM: Wow! Now that is interesting because you sent me a link to the collection website, which is really great, so can you just talk about how that came about? Is that your initiative entirely?

AC: The initiative itself to have an online presence...We are working with San Francisco State Digital Information Virtual Archive, or DIVA for short. They have been developing their online presence for the last 5 years and they were getting to the point where they were starting to approach University departments and collections to say, “You’re going to have to work with us, this is a work in progress, but we want to start making material available online.” When I heard about this, I was very excited, and I just said, “I want to work with you. I don’t care how difficult the process is involved.” And it has taken a long time to get to the point where we have a reliable basic template for making the footage available online to stream with attached metadata which is fully supported. And the TV stations and copyright holders are absolutely fine with us doing this.

KVM: Ok, you haven’t had any problems with them?

AC: I’ve had a lot of discussions with the copyright holders and it’s taken a while to establish trust, but I’ve found we’ve moved from a position where the idea of making unique source material available in any way or online... People didn’t know exactly what it meant because they weren’t familiar with that kind of request, but it made them feel some vague sense of worry, “Surely that can’t be right,” to... We’ve been completely transparent with the security of DIVA and also they haven’t had one problem since we’ve started doing this, to now, as long as the request isn’t unreasonable, as long as we don’t take the next step of saying, “We want to download material to users” or “This particular user wants some material for some inflammatory political project.” I’m not willing to take that step yet. Right now there’s been a perception shift to, “Oh, of course, yes, that’s fine.” In some cases a one or two word email reply to a request is “Yes, of course. Speak soon,” As opposed to having to introduce people, have online conversations and conferences to check security and stuff like that. There’s been a huge acceleration of them saying, “Yeah, it’s fine.”

KVM: And do you think that’s mainly due to the fact that they’ve seen it in practice and it seems to be, it’s not as threatening as they might have originally thought before they had idea of what it might look like?

AC: Honestly, yes. They haven’t had any problems as yet, and I fully intend that they won’t. And all we’re doing is making the material available online to view. From the point of view of the TV stations, it increases the number of access inquiries. And if users want to take the next step of getting access to master footage, then they have to discuss licensing with the TV stations, so... And it’s not a huge amount of revenue right now but the revenues increase, everyone’s happy. It’s simply a nice means of delivering their footage to users with them feeling secure. It’s a natural progression from what was going on prior to that.

KVM: It’s a great website too. And we’ll put a link to it when we put something online.

AC: Cool!

KVM: And it looks really nice. Ok, I’m going to just ask you more about your job, and what you do day to day basically. What would you say your primary duties are? Not the secondary things you get to if you have time, but the main responsibility you have?

AC: That’s a difficult questions, in that, because I’m the only member of staff, the Library has given me a very large amount of freedom to pitch ideas to them and request approval, I pretty much have to do everything. In terms of how does my time get divided up, I guess the main three areas if I could sub-divide would be: development of collections and pitching ideas to copyright holders and potential users, and I’m guessing 4 out of every 5 ideas i develop and pitch are unsuccessful, so I have to do a lot of those; hands on preservation work, working with both the film lab and our in-house transfer services, which we’ve been buying a lot of equipment; and finally working with users themselves, and with students. And just general maintenance, such as, we need more film leader, finding the cheapest vendor, pretty much everything like that.

KVM: So that’s a lot to handle. And then, do you have interns or anyone to help you?

AC: To date we haven’t had any interns while I’ve been working there only because up until now there’s only been X amount of quality equipment that we can actually use to reliably remaster certain things, and they’re in constant use with me. And also we don’t want to just bring an intern and say, “Ok, you do that really boring job,” which frees me up to do some time. I want to be able to teach them some stuff or work with them on something interesting to do, and I don’t have the time right now because of the deadlines we have to meet with the project funding that we’ve secured. But come the middle of 2010 that situation is going to calm down. And yeah, I’m all for interns, I would definitely appreciate the help because once someone’s got basic training on working on film you can double the amount of film you can process.

KVM: Yeah, put them on the bench and let ‘em go.

AC: I firmly believe that you don’t necessarily have to be conservator, or someone working in access, or someone working in licensing, or promotion. I personally would like someone who’s willing to try everything. And then if they want to focus on something that’s fine.

KVM: Ok. Well that’s another conversation we could have separately about the interns. So, we talked about the primary duties, do you think there are additional job duties you didn’t mention already, that you think fall under your responsibility?

AC: I guess the past 12 months, and I think this was written into my job description as a, “Well, he might do that,” is fundraising, and writing funding applications, which has taken up a lot of time. Fortunately so far we’re two for two, so we’re doing ok. But managing, even when we get the money, managing the actual securing of equipment and making sure that everyone in accounting and so forth is actually knowing what they need to do, that’s been quite difficult. And that’s pretty much just putting in extra hours and time.

KVM: So you end up taking on a lot of administrative-type duties to deal with that.

AC: Pretty much. We do get support from the University’s Office of Research and Special Projects, which is a necessary protocol for us applying as a higher education institution. But they do deal with a lot of that. And also we do have a fantastic storekeeper at the Library who’s able to help me out with just standard, minor purchases, which would actually add up over a period of time. So that works out well.

KVM: Ok, so there’s support within Library to help you with all those things.

AC: Very much so. And I would stress that that Library is very supportive of the Television Archive. Two of the Library’s stated strategic goals are to preserve the cultural heritage through the preservation of primary source materials, and also to promote and share these resources locally, regionally and internationally. That is precisely what the Television Archive is doing, and in that respect, the Library’s very happy with what we’re doing. There’s not necessarily a huge amount of direct funding, but there’s a lot of indirect support services, which I’m sure anyone who was forced to actually deal with those themselves will know they can add up a lot.

KVM: And so, a lot of the support they give you is the freedom to do what you need to do, decide what funds need to be raised, and things like that. You’re getting to make a lot of those decisions?

AC: Yes.

KVM: Do you end up playing additional roles within the Library, or are you pretty focused in the Television Archive?

AC: It’s pretty much within the Television Archive because I’m not a trained librarian, and there’s a lot of things I wouldn’t be able to do. I guess the only crossover work I’ve done since I’ve been there is, I was asked to put on a film show. We had some material which actually related to not only the building in which we’re located, but subjective interests. We also had to deal with making sure that it was full closed-captioned, which was a nice project for the Compliances Department at the University because they had not really been doing that for a film show before. So there was a learning curve there. So I guess there’s crossover, but it is still with moving images. I’ve not done any work which doesn’t involve moving images.

KVM: Are you on committees or anything like that?

AC: No.

KVM: Ok. You’ve already talked a lot about how much work you’ve done in the last few years since you started; what would you say is the main impact you’ve had is? Is it just making these collections available that were previously unavailable? Do you feel like there are other things that you want to add?

AC: In term of an impact that can be measured, my own feeling is the main impact I’ve had is that there’s been, to use a phrase from one of the earlier sessions at [the] AMIA [conference], there’s been a paradigm shift in the attitude and perceptions of the Library. The moving image collection has moved from being a burden of responsibility, to being something which is actually supporting the work of the Library and is almost on the verge of pretty much supporting itself financially, and is no longer a burden. It’s almost exciting, what’s happening now. And the move from before to after means that there’s more freedom to actually work out the next stage, which is, we’re starting to make unique footage available online to view at least, and online to filmmakers and users, how are we going to use the footage? That’s the next big challenge because the whole problem of actually getting access to the footage very soon is going to be a thing of the past.

KVM: Well, that’s great. It sounds like quite a huge impact on the Library in general that you’ve had. My next question is (I feel like it’s unique for you, like it’s hard to ask it the way it’s phrased) but the question is: What leads to the creation of a position such as yours? And in your case, you did so much to create the position itself. Do you feel like it was you and some other force coming together to create that position?

AC: I’ll maybe answer that question from my perspective. I’m unique to San Francisco State. I can give you my opinion about it might work elsewhere.

KVM: In general? Ok, good.

AC: I was able to work there because I wanted to work with this collection and because the then Head of Special Collections was looking for someone to share the burden with initially, and then for someone to shoulder the burden so she could deal with all the other responsibilities she had in managing Special Collections. So it was a stroke of luck. They may well have had a moving image specialist in house already, so I wouldn’t have been able to do what I wanted. Or they may just have not had the time to let me work there. It was good luck. In terms of what might encourage libraries to bring moving image specialists into the department, if that’s the question you’re asking...

KVM: Yes, that is.

AC: It’s really just a question of liaising and advocacy. Right now there’s any number of people coming to work for the Library, and paid work as well, and fairly decently paid work as interns, student interns. They’re working with the book collection, with the manuscripts collection, working in the IT Department. There’s no set up for paid interns coming to work the moving image collection simply because it’s not been done. And that’s because there’s not a steady stream, or in fact any kind of stream of students who are enrolled in a program approaching the Library and saying, “We’re coming here with a stipend, could we perhaps work as an intern?” So there’s no familiarity with it. I know for a fact the Library depends to a certain degree on it’s internships. And I find that interns typically approach the larger, well-established quote-unquote “television or film archives,” which have a staff, because it’s a more well-trodden path. There’s perhaps less students who would be aware of the possibility of going to a Library where there’s a film collection which sits on the shelf, or an archive which isn’t necessarily near a large population center, and trying to use the skills that they’ve acquired as part of a Masters degree in Film Archiving to try and work with the collection, and in fact crate a role. I graduated in 2005 from Norwich and there’s a lot of really talented and well-trained students coming out from Los Angeles, from New York state, and from Europe, and there’s only X amount of well-established film and TV archives. It’s difficult to do the math. I personally believe there’s a lot of collections waiting for people to develop them, and people are going to have to, not just take the step of going out on a limb and saying “I’ll do it,” but if there’s some kind of more structured process of sitting down, making a list of, “Ok, the so-and-so television collection is stored at so-and-so State, which has zero budget. Ok, is anyone interested in going there? Can we start talking to them?” And maybe not in the first year or the second year but perhaps by the third year it will come to be accepted that someone’s going to go to work there as an intern, give it a little bit longer. It’s really just a question of progression. And at some point, I believe, as long as people work sensibly, libraries, archives, or museums with moving image collections that have no staff specifically assigned to them will accept that, “Ok, yeah, we need a moving image archivist.”

KVM: Right. And that’s really interesting, and you obviously have that, that’s your experience. And I completely agree that there are only a limited number of established moving image archives out there that can accept all of us coming out of these programs. I graduated from NYU in 2006 and the years keep adding up and the students keep coming out and the positions aren’t necessarily being created to absorb these graduates. Even though we know the collections are there. And that is precisely the goal of this project. And I think that you’re an excellent advocate for this idea of coming in from the students’ side. And it’s not just, it’s not waiting around for somebody at a Library to suddenly get the idea that they need someone to care for these materials, but it’s that maybe we need to come in as students and say, “Well, we’re here, we’re trained, and we can!” And maybe that will start to build awareness because awareness, I guess it just won’t happen for no reason. So it’s really a great way to do that.

AC: I mean, there are risks involved with that. If the institution involved receives nothing less than an excellent experience of that kind of project and they feel burned by a student for whatever reason, I’m sure they’ll just shut down. And then they won’t be willing to listen. And the student involved needs to be committed to the process, and in this respect -- I was at the [AMIA] Regional Film Archive Committee meeting earlier on today -- I, for instance, because I grew up in England, I should, technically speaking, other than my wife is from California, have no emotional connection with San Francisco and California. But I grew up in England with movies, and with film noir and with books. So when I can see something happening in San Francisco, or in the Bay Area, or in Northern California, there’s an emotional resonance for me, and I’m willing to put up with a lot of hassle in order to develop the collection. Some people might not be willing to go to a particular state and a particular collection, other than out of academic interest, or knowing they want a job. Still others will hell bent on working with it. And there are so many collections which are region-specific, and I think that provides opportunities for students who -- I’m not necessarily saying if you come from California you have to stay in California and work with a collection two miles from where you were born -- but if don’t have an interest in the collection, my experience is, I put up with a lot of nonsense, and difficulties in developing the collection and it’s because I want to stick with it. I could develop my career in other ways, but so far, I’ve been happy to stay there.

And so, I think the idea of internships and also developing a program where students can go to moving image collections is a good idea, but I think you have to be rigorous in questioning the students: “Why do you want to go there?” They may come away from a three month experience with a lot of good new skills and be prepared to go elsewhere, but what does that mean for the collection that they’ve left? If the library that they go to gets into the idea that, “Ok, the students are just coming here for a bit of work experience, no one’s committed to the collection,” why would they think of adding a position of staff? Unless of course they decide that a position of staff would be useful because they can exploit or take advantage of this steady stream of internships. I don’t know, it’s difficult. You’re not always able or in a life situation to commit yourself to a job in that fashion. I’ve been lucky, I’ve had support from my wife. There was a period of time when I was earning no money. If I was on my own I couldn’t have done it.

KVM: Yeah. So yeah, I think that you’re right, the situation is always going to be different, specific to the interests of the student, and of the collection, and of the library. But I think it’s good to consider all the points that you’ve just brought up.

AC: Yeah. In a word, and I know it’s not the answer to your question, but from my point of view you need passion. If you don’t have passion for what you do, at some point you’re either going to stumble or you’re going to run into someone who’s going to act as a road block. And the only way you can stay committed is if you’re passionate about what you do. And presumably people are taking these types of courses to begin with because they are, at the very least, interested, and hopefully passionate about moving image archiving.

KVM: Yeah, it’s not exactly a field where we come in expecting to get rich quick, so it’s usually something that we do because we care about it. I think it’s a great answer to that question. And I think you’ve answered my next question, which is what are the obstacles to a position being created. But is there anything else you want to add to that? I think it’s covered.

AC: No. It’s just a misconception I think that there is some kind of conflict between the duties of a library, and the responsibilities for managing a moving image collection. The library can benefit in it’s mission from the work of the film or TV archive within its department of special collections or whatever. It can be complementary. And all you have to do is shift the perception from the, “We don’t need that,” or “It’s an unnecessary add-on,” to its an integral, but not necessarily too important part of their ongoing work.

KVM: What needs to be changed about the status of moving image preservation specialists? Or does there need to be a change in the status? Because some people say that, I think I’ve heard before that people say that it’s not recognized, moving image materials might not be recognized as important as manuscripts. And then if that is the case for a lot of people or traditional libraries... Do you think that’s true, first of all?

AC: I think it’s necessary to respect the work of the library, which has had the foresight, at the very least to be housing a moving image collection, which presumably you think is of some importance if you want to go and work with it. By the same token, the library has it’s own priorities, and honestly, if the “library” in inverted commas, or the staff at the library don’t consider the priority of looking after the moving image collection to be as important as some other collections, who cares! We’re not doing this for a pat on the back from libraries, we’re doing this to try and work with libraries and with collections that’ve had the good sense to preserve in whatever fashion. You need to look for approbation from your peers within the moving image community, if that’s what you need. The work itself should be it’s own reward. We’re not here, I personally don’t think we’re here to try and list the reasons why we can’t develop moving image collections, we’re here to get the job done. And then if you need to trade war stories and talk about how difficult your job is afterwards, there’s a whole community, of which AMIA is only one, which is willing to listen and share them back with you.

KVM: Right. Ok, I think that’s great. So, I don’t want to take up too much of your time. But I think you have... I think you’ve answered everything else. But I do have one more question for you, and I don’t think I asked it in the beginning, this goes back to your earlier...when you were talking about that you’ve been finding funding from outside organizations: What is the motivation for them to support your position?

AC: I guess, none whatsoever. They want to get access to the material.

KVM: So those are the types of organizations that are funding?

AC: Absolutely. Apart from, we’re recently received some funding through the local PBS station to develop part of their collection with us, which is great. We’ve received federal funding through the California State Library, from the Library Services and Technology Act. So the fact that we’re part of a library allowed us to gain access to those funds, so that’s a huge reason for stating that it’s a great place for a moving image archive to be. It opens doors to a lot more funding than otherwise we would have access to. If someone wants to gain access to the film, I need to be the person working on it because I’m authorized by the Library to work on it. If I don’t work on that material, then the people don’t get access to it. That might sound cynical, but the way I see it is, they’re paying for me to preserve the collection. I’ve come from an environment in England where money comes from the State and from local authorities in a modest but regular way in order to preserve and make accessible a collection. If people are willing to go to stock libraries and pay hundreds of dollars per hour to gain access to footage, as far as I’m concerned, they’re going to have to pay a lot less than that to: (a) gain access to the material in a profession and quality way, but also they’re going to put that money into preserving the collection so if they want to come back to us next time they can do the same thing again. I think it’s a perfectly natural way of getting around the problem of a lack of funding. But that does depend on interest in the collection and the strength of the collection.

KVM: Yeah, but it’s a great, to people that potential have a strong interest in it, it’s an excellent way to pitch the need for someone caring for it because, “Well, this is going to be a lot cheaper than the stock footage house.”

AC: Absolutely. And I couldn’t stress enough you have to provide the highest possible quality customer service that you can. And I don’t just mean quality hands-on work with the film or remastering. If they send you an email you have to reply in a timely fashion. If they might have any questions you have to deal with them courteously. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve tried to in touch with certain specialized resources, and come across people who might be brilliant at their job but everyone will smile and say, “Oh, they don’t have good people skills.” That’s no good because if producers come across that, they’re in a very time constrained environment, they go somewhere else simply because they can’t bother to hang around. You have to produce. And that’s another skill that needs to be learned. Public service is also customer service. People should be always saying, “Well, I had a great experience at that archive. I’m going to tell someone else and come back.” And it can be really annoying at times but you have to do it.

KVM: Yeah. I think that’s an excellent point that we tend to forget. And on that note, if you’d like to add anything else, feel free, otherwise, I think I’ve gone through my questions.

AC: No. I think this a great project and if I can help in any way I’d be very happy to.

KVM: Ok, and if we can help you in any way, let us know! Thank you!

Comments (1)


Obviously, many positions in libraries and archives depend on grant monies for their sustainment, but Alex's model of acquiring funding from outside sources, like film production companies and local TV stations, seems rare, if not unique. Are there others out there with similar situations?

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