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Interview with Erika Gottfried, Non-Print Curator at The Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University Libraries

Sarah Resnick: This is Sarah Resnick, and I’m speaking with Erika Gottfried. Today is February 8th, 2011 and we are recording this interview for the IMLS Moving Image Specialists in Libraries project in the Moving Image Preservation program at NYU. Today we are speaking in the Tamiment Library at NYU. Thanks, Erika, for agreeing to do the interview.

Erika Gottfried: I would add also that my title is Curator of Nonprint Collections.

SR: Okay, great. That was my first question actually.

EG: That is my title.

SR: So, now that we’ve established that …. What kind of appointment do you have? Is it full-time? Part-time?

EG: It’s not an appointment strictly speaking. I do work here full-time. I do have a salary line. It’s not a faculty appointment. Archivists at this library are not tenure-track. Personally, I don’t think there’s really any reason for librarians to be tenure-track, either, because in my view, libraries and archives are not a discipline. They’re a practical thing, but there’s no content. In any case, I suppose in that way we are discriminated against. But what that means is … since I have no appointment—and most anybody in the library who doesn’t have tenure-track—we serve at will, at pleasure. There is no union for us. So, as it happens, people don’t get fired very often, but we actually have no particular rights as employees other than general federal rights. I actually worked here for ten years on soft money—close to a world record.

SR: Wow.

EG: And then they simply just made the decision that I would be permanent. But I never got any piece of paper [announcing the change]; they just moved it from one pot of money to the other. And that is in common with the way this university is managed—very, very consistent with that type of thing. I have to say, I’m an academic brat. My father is an emeritus professor of political science and public administration—an expert. When I first started working here, I described it to my father. I had worked as a freelancer before, and I’d only had one regular job. I thought things were run pretty strangely [here], but I said to him, “Oh well, I suppose all large universities are like that.” He said, “No they’re not.” He said, “I’ve never heard of any place run like that.” For instance, the first year I worked here it took me most of the year to figure out who I actually reported to. So, anyway—enough about that. [Laughter.]

SR: Actually, I’m just curious. Are you encouraged to publish, the same way that a tenure-track …?

EG: No. No one ever asks …. If I do it, it’s noted maybe in passing. It’s sort of,
”That’s a nice thing.” Although personally, I don’t care. I would find a lot of that a burden. I do publish from time to time, when I have something to say or someone asks me to review a book or an exhibit. I particularly like reviewing exhibits that I think are important.

SR: And when did you start working at the library?

EG: I started working at the Tamiment Library in 1989.

SR: And, which department is this in the library?

EG: The Tamiment Library is part of Special Collections at New York University. Special Collections is very tiny because actually there are only three special collections. There’s us, and then there’s the Fales Library, and then there’s the University Archives, which is the institutional archives of NYU. So NYU really doesn’t have many special collections and that’s for historical reasons: This only recently became an important university. So there’s a lot of catching up [to do], and you see that reflected in many ways.

SR: Can you describe some of your primary job duties and responsibilities?

EG: Well, first of all I should explain that my title was made up for my predecessors and it was done at a time when [NYU Library] didn’t know what to do with archives and archivists. I really like the title because it’s ambiguous, so it gives me a fair amount of scope.

SR: Right.

EG: First of all, non-print at Tamiment has come to mean visual materials: still and moving, and artifacts. We do have a really large oral history collection, we do have audio materials, but I am not responsible for them. Everyone is and no one is. And that’s a real problem around here. And I was just listening recently to a couple of people—one from a large, well-funded institution and one from a very poor one—each of which had full-time oral history archivists, which made me very envious. Not for myself, because I’m not responsible for it, but on behalf of my institution.

SR: Right.

EG: But anyway, it’s visual materials: moving and still [images], and artifacts. And I am responsible for their care, for intellectual description, and for arranging them and then describing them ultimately in a finding aid. And for making that happen. And making that happen happens in a number of different ways. Principally it happens by my managing other people, increasingly through the years. I do—unhappily for me—very little processing of my own. I supervise processing archivists when we get grants. For instance, we have a large grant for processing the photo morgue for the Daily Worker. It’s part of the Communist Party [of the USA] collection, which is very, very large. And, we hired a processing archivist who gets to have all the fun. And I supervise.

And then it happens in smaller ways too. I have lots of student assistants, and there are collections that are in various states of dress and undress. And one of the things that people don’t understand outside the archival world—although they might if they stopped to think about it—is that …most of the time you don’t just get either a total jumble or something that comes perfectly out of file cabinets, and only needs to be re-foldered. Everything is in-between. And then, in the real archival world, you’re working on stuff, then the boss says, “Drop that and do something else.” And that something else becomes important, and then you have to go back to whatever you were working on previously. You know, it’s like life—it’s very messy. And you have to keep your eye on triage and keep your head above water if you want to be successful.

SR: Since you work with both still and moving image materials, what percentage of the collection would you say is comprised of moving images?

EG: That, of course, is not an easy question to answer. It certainly is primarily stills—still images. And that includes primarily photographs, drawings, cartoons, and so on. But the best way to address it is this: There is a small processed moving images collection and it’s really processed. I mean it’s described to the nth degree. There’s a finding aid for it online, and it’s got shot-for-shot description, if you’ve looked at it.

SR: Yeah, I have!

EG: Yeah, so you know …. And I did that. And you know it’s mostly outtakes and I watched every single frame and I described every single shot. I was less experienced in those days. I had been a film/photo researcher and an associate producer for about a decade before [I became a stills and moving images archivist], so it’s not that I didn’t know about that.

SR: Right.

EG: But, it was only possible because it was about 80 hours of stuff. Which is, as you know, actually not all that large.

SR: Yeah.

EG: I could never have done the same thing with a several-million-foot newsreel collection. But it was a very good thing to learn. And it’s very well described, even beyond what you see online. The online component is a selected part of the collection, which we are now offering for licensing—we’re just starting with that. But there is also a database in which the rest of the 80 hours is described very, very well. We have the original film, which we had transferred to what was then broadcast-quality video: Beta SP, two sets, one master and one dub-master. So, there’s that …. But then, there’s a whole bunch of other stuff, and that whole bunch of other stuff comprises various things that either came over the transom after that, or were here and weren’t part of that group. A lot of stuff came from the Communist Party. An awful lot of that, however, is feature films.

SR: And what formats are they in?

EG: 35mm mostly. There’s some 16mm, but mostly 35mm. (And I should have said, as you probably saw from the finding aid, our processed collection is mostly 16mm.) And then various other bits of things: feature films from [North] Korea, for example, and other parts of what was the old Communist bloc. There are parts of a number of films about Angela Davis that came with the Communist Party stuff. We still haven’t worked out whom the copyright belongs to, and obviously that has a lot to do with whether we’re going to invest time in preservation, let alone think about licensing. But licensing is important, you know. Much as I would love people to only be scholars, the reality is that when people come looking for images, 99.99 percent of the time they want to be able to reproduce them, and they want to be able to publish them too—especially for film.

So there’s a lot of unknown material …. In fact, I’m about to do a survey of exactly what else we have. It also gets very blurry, because moving images includes film and video, too. We have a lot of original video stuff, but we also have…. For instance we just got a large collection donated to us by an Arab-American scholar who’s interested in the portrayal of Arabs in the media, in films and in television, which is a wonderful subject and very worthy of having. And he collected a whole bunch of off-the-shelf videos, which is fine—that you can use as a library. But then he also did a huge amount of off-the-air copying just from television, which is very, very valuable, but can pose some real problems in terms of rights and research, at least within a university setting. I mean intellectually, we certainly believe in free inquiry. The problem is that university attorneys are notoriously, notoriously conservative. I had somebody who’s a fair use/copyright attorney tell me that university attorneys make corporate attorneys seem positively loose and irresponsible.

Years ago, I was trying to get this collection to the point where we could license it. My idea was to outsource the licensing …. I was so excited, I got a film stock house interested in it—and why wouldn’t they be? It was turnkey: We had the masters, we had the description, and so on. And the stock house said they’d do it without charging the unions huge amounts for the service fees. And I was feeling we were getting so close and then the lawyer turns to me and says, “All this is fine but of course we have to make sure the agreement says that none of this can be incorporated into another film.”

SR: [Laughter.] Okay…?

EG: Yeah, I sort of wondered what we’d been talking about for weeks and weeks and weeks [prior to this]. So questions like this are important, and we have acquired a number of collections where …. I should also say that I don’t do collection acquisition.

SR: Okay.

EG: No, I do not do that. That is something that the Director of Tamiment does. And so I have no control over that. I think of myself as an anemone: Whatever comes by, I try to take in. The Director will ask me on occasion to do a survey, but usually not even that. So stuff just arrives. And we run into problems like [the collection of off-the-air video recordings]. If I were king, I would probably be a little more selective because of these problems. We don’t get the rights to a lot of stuff. But then, [donors] often are not [even] asked [to donate rights].

SR: I see.

EG: [For instance,] The Good Fight, the first modern American documentary made about the Spanish Civil War, [is an example of] an essentially depository situation. The [filmmakers] never signed over their rights to us. We cannot make any copies from the film and the film interviews. It all has to be [with] their permission. Now, if we had more resources, I would probably say that I would support that. If somebody wanted footage from The Good Fight or the track to go with it, I would put it through the lab [for the filmmakers]—but I don’t have that kind of time, not for stuff that we don’t own. Essentially, what happens is that the filmmakers get a request, and I pull the stuff for them, or send them to off-site storage [to pull it themselves], and the filmmakers make [their own] arrangements for providing footage [to researchers].

This means a good portion of the collections that we have are—unless they’re on video, and a lot of the older film collections are not—they’re not useable [for research]. They can’t be seen. [NYU’s Library now has a Moving Images Preservation Department] and once in a great while I will run a film for a researcher [on the Department’s editing table]. Again, I can’t just say to [the] Moving Image Preservation Specialist, “Here, you watch them. You babysit these people.” We have [only] one flatbed table and that’s not what she’s there for.

SR: You have one flatbed…?

EG: They do. We have [no film screening equipment] here.

SR: Okay.

EG: And, let me tell you though—I don’t regret that. The Moving Image Preservation Department is the best thing that ever happened. It was very lonely out here [before it was established]. I’m not a techie … [but] I know enough. Also, I have an advantage: I’m older, I actually know a little bit, and I did work with film. I was the world’s worst assistant editor, but I know what 16mm is, I know what a splice is. I understand about edge code and so on. And that’s certainly an advantage, but I’m so, so grateful that we have someone that handles preservation and that we can share this.

SR: So for access purposes, a film would have to be transferred to video, and therefore you’d need the rights …?

EG: Well, maybe. Or, I can certainly foresee … one can be creative about it. You can have them transferred for reference purposes, but that’s a lot of money for something that you don’t own and that people are going to want to make copies of. I don’t think that’s something that we can generally afford to invest in, except on a small scale.

SR: So you really see licensing as a way to fund transfers of collections.

EG: I do—but that view is not shared by [Tamiment’s] Director.

SR: I see.

EG: He disagrees with me, although we are in fact starting to license stuff, but it’s not meant as a moneymaking thing.

SR: Really?

EG: The fees have been set pretty low [but not high enough to make money]. I mean, enough to discourage a sort of land rush that we can’t control. So it probably wouldn’t support [collection transfers anyway]. You know, I understand that. We want to make stuff available…that’s important to us. And for reference purposes, the processed collection is entirely transferred to video and anybody can screen it here and order a DVD of the whole thing and look at it in their home. So we made that available for viewing and for research. And we’re working on finding a vendor that can handle the lab part easily, rather than having to do it ad hoc every single time [a user requests a dub]. Which is how we started, partly because the finding aid was put online before we were able to make these arrangements. This [was] against my better judgment. Because I [used to work] as a [film] researcher, and I know what a pain it is [to] call up and say, “Hey, this is great! This is great footage. So can you get me a copy of it?” And the answer is, “Well, it’ll take a while.” I mean, more experienced researchers should know the difference between a stock house and a university—it’s not wham, bam, thank you M’am. But even so, to offer the materials and then make it difficult to obtain copies of them, I don’t like doing that. I don’t like to frustrate people. And you know, we’re here to be a research facility and be useable. But we’re working on it—we’re pretty close.

SR: Just to recap here. So, you have a lot of film: 16mm, some 35mm, some video, some of which was produced by the library as preservation access…do you have any other formats within your collection?

EG: Moving image formats?

SR: Yeah.

EG: Well, yeah—we have the stray Hi-8; we have the stray Super 8mm. We have everything. Whatever there is … open-reel video, quad …. We’ve got a little bit of everything.


SR: How many other staff members work in the library?

EG: Full time employees: There’s myself; there’s a librarian; there’s an associate head of archival collections that’s under the [Director]; there’s the of the library; there is a Tamiment archivist; and there’s a paraprofessional—a collections associate, who does mostly library stuff. That’s it for full-time, salary-line employees. But then we have eight people working full-time as project archivists. In some cases, they work a three-year project and then they’re [gone].

SR: Yes.

EG: The Communist Party stuff … in a couple of cases, there are archivists who have essentially become staff, although they are working off soft money the way I used to. But every time the money runs out for one project, our Director makes sure that he finds money [for another]. As for people who are salary-line employees, it’s just the ones I described … five people in total. Oh, and innumerable student assistants.

SR: Right, of course.

EG: Of course—the work would be impossible without them. I mean literally impossible.

SR: And so, are you the only staff member who’s dedicated to non-print materials?

EG: Yes. As I said, the oral history collection is sort of like the tar baby, it’s no one’s baby. And it never has been—not since I’ve been here.

SR: So maybe you can address whether you play any additional roles in the library—if you are on any committees, if you have any additional duties and responsibilities that you haven’t described.

EG: No, I don’t. What I should say is that periodically there’s a hiccup at the library, “Oh, everybody should participate.” So a couple of times I’ve been made to participate on committees and then they forget about it. My attitude is the committees are for faculty and tenure-track positions. That makes sense. But in my case it’s an unfunded mandate and I’ve got enough to do. Of course, part of the price we pay is that most of us, except for our librarian, have no connection with the rest of the library—almost none. And vice versa. Which is not good. But you know—I have my job to do. And that’s not my job. My job is to get done what I need to get done. I don’t really have time for [committees], and I’m rather glad actually, even though I would like to be better connected to the rest of the library. Partly because I think [NYU Library staff] don’t know us and…often don’t think well of us because they don’t know us. There are unkind things said about us, I know that.

SR: Oh, no.

EG: Yeah. [Laughter.]

SR: What type of training prepared you for working with these collections? You talked a little bit about your experience as a researcher, but …

EG: Yeah, well, that was mainly it. I worked as a film and photo researcher for about ten years. And it was all freelance work and a very tough way to make a living. I was in my early thirties, and I was actually working a lot, waiting to be paid—and the operative word is waiting. [Laughter.] And I finally said, “Do I really want to be doing this ten years from now?” Research [had been] my foot in the door [to working in film]. It was what I knew how to do. But ultimately I wanted to be a producer and that didn’t happen. And as a no-longer-young person, I didn’t want to start all over again. So I thought about what [skills] I could I parlay [into another career]—what I knew how to do and I would enjoy doing. And I concluded that this is what I should do, which was not quite as simple in those days.

SR: I would imagine.

EG: There was nothing like NYU’s Moving Image Archiving Program. And there weren’t even that many archival training programs [, period]. I chose not to attend the one at NYU. I have a library degree and I went to library school for practical reasons. Not because I thought it would prepare me [to be] an archivist—even as a regular archivist—which it did not; it had absolutely nothing to do with it—but because I knew there were more library jobs than archives jobs. And if it didn’t work out I knew I could get a library job. Plus, most of the places doing the hiring—and NYU was no exception in those days—had no idea what to do with an archives degree or archivists at all. And so they were very happy if you had a library degree just because they knew what it was. My predecessor [in the Nonprint Curator’s position] had a master’s degree in American Studies. She had a more advanced degree than I did, a subject degree. And [although] they hired me on at a ridiculously low salary, [it was] higher than hers [had been] because I had a library degree—they knew what to do with it.

My library degree was not useless, not at all. It was my introduction to computers, and it was a very good introduction, so I don’t regret that. But it wasn’t particularly preparation for archives. But I had always had an affinity for images; I really fell in love with them. My research background was a very, very good one, because as a very young person in the late sixties, I was interested in women’s history. And I took the first course offered in women’s history at the University of Washington, which is my alma mater. It was [given by] a visiting professor. And you have to understand that, in 1970, if you wanted to do women’s history, you had to do original research: There were no books in print. You understand?

SR: Yes.

EG: There was one about woman’s suffrage, and one more generally [focused], a little paperback. I’m serious. If you wanted to find out about it, you better go do the original research. And I was 17 [years old].

SR: Wow.

EG: And the seminar had graduate students and undergrads…everybody, because it was the only game in town. And I didn’t really know any better, so I just went and did it. And it was very, very exciting. I had to use all kinds of sources. Anything. I remember saying to my mother, who’s an editor, “How do you cite a scarf that says, ‘Votes for Women’?” She said, “You’re on your own kid—I have no idea.” So you really had to have a broad social focus and really suck everything in. And I often say that for marginal groups, or groups that haven’t been included [in mainstream histories], sometimes visual materials are the only evidence that they existed.

SR: Right.

EG: I was very fascinated by the photographs that I dealt with [in my women’s history research]. When I first started out in film research, I was doing standard [library] research. But increasingly I started doing images [research], and it was wonderful. I loved it. I really responded to it. And my experience has served me very well “on the other side of the desk,” because I have the perspective of the researcher. On the other hand though, [as a researcher] I didn’t know anything about preservation, and one of the ironic and kind of horrible things …. I did research here [at Tamiment], because I worked on social and political film[s] [about] anarchism, the Wobblies, and so on. And [a few years later some of the filmmakers I’d worked with] donated [to Tamiment] some of [the] materials [they had used in these films], including photographs. Photographs, which I, when I worked for [these filmmakers], had collected, and organized, and written on the back in pen! And [now] every time I pull that collection, I have to see that and it just sends a dagger to my heart. But I didn’t…

SR: [Laughter.] You didn’t know …

EG: I didn’t know [any better] then; I wasn’t an archivist.

SR: So how did you acquire your knowledge of preservation? Was it just on the job?

EG: Well, not just on the job. First of all, I did have some formal archival training. I went to the Modern Archives Institute at the National Archives, and I have a certificate from that. And that’s very, very useful. It’s [archivist] boot camp, and also [good for] networking. And I went very seriously to professional meetings. I went to every SAA meeting, and to regional meetings and so on. I took every workshop I could, about preservation in general. There weren’t many offered for visual materials. I joined what became the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA). [At the time] it was called “F/TAAC” [Film and Television Archives Advisory Committee]. And there were so few of us—maybe 40 or 50 people [at a time] max—that we met around a table the size of this conference table.

SR: Incredible.

EG: And we taught one another. Some of us were old-time. People like Alan Lewis [former Director of the Film and Videotape Archive at CBS News]. And as I said, we taught one another, we traded [skills and information]. Again it was like the research I had done: There weren’t any guidebooks and you had no choice [but to make it up as you went along]. A lot of this stuff is so new. A few years ago I was working on a still image digitization project, and I had some questions about how to do it properly. I called up people at the Library of Congress; I called up people at the National Archives. And they said, “I don’t know, but when you find out let me know.” And of course, those who are on the cutting edge often get cut. If I have to do it, I’ll go ahead and do it. Although I’d rather let someone else do it first and not be the person experimenting. I’m more interested in using the tools properly.

SR: And do you still participate in AMIA and other conferences? Are you still continuing your professional development?

EG: I have [done less] in recent years, because the budget here hasn’t covered my going.

SR: I see.

EG: But I would love to. AMIA is really the best. I have to say, SAA is much less relevant [to my needs than AMIA]. Not because it’s not doing a good job…. I think the [SAA] conferences do a good job, but I don’t need it anymore. I do keep up with preservation, I read about stuff. I talk to other people and so on. I particularly try to keep up with digital stuff. And AMIA has been especially good for that—their presentations and their meetings have been really, really useful. There’s not really anything analogous and as useful for photographs—that’s much more amorphous. What’s nice about AMIA is that it brings together not just archivists, but people in the industry too, and in an egalitarian atmosphere. And it’s really wonderful and I miss it. Where SAA, and unfortunately AMIA too, are very weak is in their publications, which are pretentious b.s. And in the case of SAA, even worse [it’s] boring, pretentious b.s. What [archivists] do is really, really interesting, so there has to be an editorial decision not to make stuff lively. You’d have to be trying. And I’m not going to censor [this comment] about the SAA—I’ve said this to them. Periodically, they do a survey—and I’m old enough that it’s been two or three times [now]—[and ask,] “Oh, what can we do [to improve our publications]?” And like most situations in bureaucracies like [the SAA], they’re not really interested in changing anything, but they want to give the appearance of collegiality. I was very disappointed in the AMIA journal, though. I really did think that was going to be more interesting, but it sort of …

SR: It hasn’t really been publishing that frequently, either.

EG: No—but it’s really disappointing. What we do is exciting: the practical part, the theoretical [, too], if you can talk about it in good theoretical ways. I don’t see it. So, I am very selective about the professional literature [I read], because I not only think [most of it is] not useful, I think it’s worse than that—I think it’s pernicious.

SR: Really?

EG: I think it’s pernicious because bad writing means you are not thinking well. And you read enough of that stuff, you start to talk that way—god forbid, you might start to think that way. And I don’t want to.

SR: Are there any publications that you refer to?

EG: There have been a couple okay ones [about] film, which I can’t think of right now. One for stills …. I hate to just say, “Okay nothing is any good.” I try to have some positive things [to suggest] …. As I understand it, though, people only want to [come to moving images and still archives] after they’ve [already] decided what their thesis is and [select] their nice, pretty pictures and footage [to illustrate] what they already think they know to be true. And I insist that [visual materials] are documents that have as much a story to tell [as manuscript materials and other primary sources]. [T]here’s a book called Still Philadelphia: A Photographic History, 1890-1940, comprised of [photographs] of Philadelphia—a lot of it from newspaper morgues, but not entirely—that’s the only illustrated history of anything I’ve seen that really has an interactive relationship with [its] image[s]. It’s not like they said, “Oh, these would be pretty images.” And then stuck them in, and wrote something about what they might be illustrating. No, there’s a dialogue with photographs: They talk about what’s in them and how they might have been shot and why they might have been shot. [They understand that] the images didn’t just fall from the sky—they’re part of [a] process. And that’s what I would love to see encouraged. And I try to encourage that and remind researchers, even though …. You know there are differing theories about whether [as an archivist] you ought to be just a neutral facilitating presence, or whether you ought to say, “Hey, this is interesting. You should look at it.” And I try to be somewhere in the middle. I don’t want to push people, on the other hand, people are so ignorant about the possibilities of using images, including—if maybe not more so—academics.

SR: Why do you think that is?

EG: I think … I have no scientific evidence.

SR: Speculate.

EG: Partly, familiarity breeds contempt. Images now are so much part of the air we breathe, that people aren’t conscious of them and don’t see them as something produced. And even though educated people understand that films are edited, that there’s someone behind the camera, they don’t think about it. They think of them as illustrations. And for academics I think, because [images] are so compelling and beautiful and seductive and stimulating to the imagination, there’s this sense [that] it’s too much fun to be taken seriously. Which is one of the reasons you do see, [in much] of the [academic] writing about images, a lot of pretentiousness, a lot of jargon, and I think it’s a way to [to be taken] seriously: “I have to say these things so that you’ll take me seriously. Because otherwise it’s just pictures.”

SR: Do you have any thoughts about…perhaps how things have changed over the past few years in moving image collections? I mean, we were sort of speaking about this…Have you seen more interest, less interest? Changes in the way the materials are being used? Changes in the library’s perspective even?

EG: Well, I can’t speak to out there ….

SR: I mean here.

EG: Well, ever since the finding aid [for the moving images collection] went up [on the Tamiment Library website], we’re getting increased requests. Although, I was always getting requests, and I was always saying, “No—our film collection isn’t open.” I get that very regularly, [but] I think it spiked up a little bit. And as more people [use the collection], more people will know about it, especially if they use the credit lines [the way] I tell them to. God help them if I find out they didn’t[!] But for instance, we just had the BBC use some of our stuff.

SR: Oh, that’s great.

EG: For a series the Brits are producing about the United States. But I expect we are going to see a surge more and more. But even before that, people were always calling us and hoping that we had footage.

SR: And, in your opinion, what do you think leads to the creation of position like yours—visual curators and moving image specialists?


EG: Well, I can tell you what I know about the history of my own position.

SR: Right.

EG: When I used to come [to Tamiment as a researcher], there were no separate visual collections at all—certainly no film that anyone could identify. And [there were] photographs, maybe, in manuscript collection[s]. And I think there was pressure [as] more and more people [started] asking for them. So, there was a grant gotten and the position of Non-Print Curator was created to separate the [non-print] materials from the manuscript collections and really create non-print collections, which included moving images. And there were a couple of people who were here very briefly [in this position before I came to Tamiment] and they did good work. Although I was told when I got here by the person who was leaving: “Oh, the visual materials have been separated from the manuscript collections.” And I saw how many manuscript collections there were and how long both of them had been [working] there, and I knew that could not be true, as indeed it was not. And it still is not, although [it’s] much, much, much better. And then certainly, I get hundreds of reference queries every year … 200 … 300. It’s a large volume for special collections, especially now [that] we have an Internet presence. But even before that, it was regular, regular, regular. And that’s why even though initially my position was to have been supported [by] the New York City Central Labor Council, and it was just supposed to be for two or three years …. Well, that was 1989 and here I am in 2011. But, even in the first … more than the first year, I don’t think they ever contributed as much as they were supposed to. And so that forced the then-Director of the Tamiment Library to fundraise for my salary [every year]. Which was a real burden for her, and it certainly was a very insecure feeling for me.

SR: Of course.

EG: But the point was it was recognized that this position needed to exist because of demand. And it has been consistent. One of the last things the former Director—may she rest in peace—did was to request that my position be made permanent, which it was then. So it was kind of a dying wish. I hope that [in the future] it won’t [have to] be that way for other people who have these positions created.

SR: Perhaps you don’t want to speak to the larger library world, but do you see any obstacles to the creation of positions like yours? Why are there so few?

EG: Money. It depends on how knowledgeable [the] library administration is. Perhaps [there’s an] assumption of imputed frivolity. “We want to do the important things first, the papers, and all that—the most important things. And then we can get to the fun stuff.” I think [moving image materials are] not seen as primary [materials within libraries]. And for more knowledgeable library administrators, they know how expensive a lot of the equipment and the preservation is. They understand this. And it is not inconsiderable.

SR: Maybe you can just talk a little bit of your relationship with the preservation lab here at the library? And if you have any idea how it got started ….

EG: The moving image preservation lab?

SR: Yes.

EG: Well, that happened a number of years ago. The [MIAP] program was initially created to be in tandem with a real preservation program, an existing one, at [the George] Eastman House. And that didn’t work out. And in my view it’s still trying to sort of find its identity and find its way. And part of that is again because of money. NYU is still unwilling to really invest in the equipment and the full-time staff it needs to have a real preservation program. It’s getting better. See, the administrative lines are fuzzy. There’s a lot of confusion between the MIAP program and the [Moving Image] Preservation Department here [at the NYU library], which are indeed separate budgets, but there’s a lot of blurring there. The Moving Image Preservation Department within the library depends very much on the MIAP students. It has a limited amount of equipment, still enough to make a big difference. They have a flatbed [editing table], but they [have] video decks [for only a very limited number of formats]. They can’t do transferring for many media [types]. I have 8mm film that I’d like to see, and they don’t have [a means to view] that [format].

They have a very wonderful, talented specialist who is the head of the department, and there was a wonderful person before her too—very, very good. And that’s a great strength because [the specialist] does a great job with what she has. But ideally, really, a moving image preservation department ought to have facilities to transfer from film to tape, too, you know—that’s the real deal. And this isn’t it yet. That’s why the people in the program work in the preservation department but also will intern in labs and so on. It’s sort of a compromise thing. I think if there was a real commitment—because there’s money around for that—if there was the will to do it, then that’s what you’d have—you’d have a real lab. You’d have more than this. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned [from] working [within] a large, wealthy, bureaucracy [it’s] that if the administration wants something to happen, it will happen. They will find the means to make it happen. And this clearly hasn’t been a priority because it hasn’t happened.

SR: Okay, well, just to end on a more positive note, maybe you can describe some of your accomplishments … how would you describe your impact on the library?

EG: Well, I will, but I would also like to … you had, earlier, before the tape was rolling, you were saying that you had a question about why more moving image archivists are not hired in academic libraries.

SR: Yes.

EG: And I would like to address that question. And this is from my experience of working with the students in the MIAP program who in the main have been intelligent, hardworking, really good people. But—and this is not their fault personally, it has to do with [the training they receive]—even though I’ve said that libraries and archives are not disciplines in the sense that they don’t have content, in an academic library, in special collections, they’re special for a reason. They have subject focus. And the people who are in this particular program, and the way the program is set up, don’t have a subject focus. And many of them don’t have background in history. And most [of the Special Collections are historical], even the Downtown Collections here at Fales—that’s already [become] historical. If you don’t have that context, it’s hard to go the next step. If you’re processing something, you’ve got to know what it is and where it comes from, especially if you’re doing more documentary type of stuff. Looking at stuff from the Communist Party, you’ve got to know something about the Communist Party. And, for instance what the moving image preservation [department] has been able to do with the MIAP students [is very valuable]—they do a wonderful job of evaluating the films and seeing what kind of physical condition [they’re] in. But what they can’t do is describe the content. I mean they could, but they don’t know what they’re looking at.

SR: Yeah, that’s really interesting. You’re actually the first person to make that point, but it’s a really good one.

EG: Yes, but there are ways to address this. NYU already has a dual degree program with a library school in which people get a [master’s degree] in a subject specialty and they get the library degree [at the same time]. And I don’t see any particular reason why there couldn’t be something similar for the MIAP program.

SR: A lot of people cite not having a library degree [as a problem] for the MIAP students specifically—because they come out of the program with an MA but not a library degree—and that might be a barrier. But you see it more as [the lack of] a subject [specialty].

EG: Well, that might be a barrier too, you know. But I think [it] would certainly make [moving images archives programs’ graduate students] stronger [job candidates] if they had a background in history, art history and so on. I can’t invite the MIAP students to do any describing or arranging because they don’t have subject background. And as far as I’ve seen, they don’t have the tools for it. It’s not like they’d have to be experts in communist history, but they would have to know something about history in general. They’d have to know what the Yalta Conference was so that they know about the Cold War. They’d have to be educated in those ways, and by and large, they’re not. But they could be—they’re really bright people and it’s not that they’re not interested.

SR: It’s a really good point.

EG: So anyway, that’s my take on it. [As for] the library degree …. I told you about my own experience. Although that’s less true now, that’s a lot less true. People who are graduating from the archives program, the regular archives program … well, actually, I don’t know …. I was going to say, the [graduates of the] archives program [here at NYU] have a very good track record in getting hired in all kinds of archives. In fact, you might want to interview Peter Wosh with that in mind. He’s the head of that program, has been for a while, and also the Public History program at NYU. I mean, things are bad economically right now, but as these things go, they’ve been very successful in getting their graduates hired. But again, that’s a dual program. It’s a certificate in archives but it’s also an MA in history, although you can just get the certificate if you already have an MA. But you know it’s the same thing. It’s the same thing, really.

So anyway you asked about successes …. In terms of moving images, since that’s only part of my job—although it may become increasingly more of it—it’s finally, finally…you know [I processed] this collection a long time ago. And I did an elaborate database for it, which by the way the Moving Images Preservation Department uses—that’s what they use to input the data about that. That was the database that I created, and then it was modified … and we share it. So there’s that as an accomplishment. It’s gone on to have a second life as they use it and I will probably continue to use it [for] my own data. And, it took a long time but finally getting a finding aid out of that and having it online is very rewarding for me—to see that it really is useable, that researchers can find stuff, they can find what they need. That’s what it’s all about, really. I hope I can continue to do that, although I would never imagine [again describing materials] in the detail that I did [before]. Even if we had several small collections, I wouldn’t have the time, although, if I had the right kind of archival assistants, I could. If there were any people available like that from the MIAP program, I would probably walk through fire to get them.

[Laughter].

Any other questions?

SR: No, I think that’s it. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me.

Reiss_1291_007comp.jpg


Mike Quill (third from the left, at microphone), president of the Transport Workers Union, and other TWU officials and leaders put their case before the public in a sponsored television broadcast during the union’s 1953 strike against New York City private bus lines. The Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives Moving Images Collection includes extensive footage of this strike, part of the more than 60 hours of film donated to the Archives by the TWU. (Photograph from the Sam Reiss Photographs Collection, Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University.)

Comments (1)

Marie:

While not the same, the mention of the mystery organizational structure made me think of the way audiovisual material is handled at the state archive I am interning at this summer. My supervisor has been dubbed "Electronic Records Archivist" and literally recieves anything that is not a photograph, map or piece of paper. With the increase in non-paper records the in-flow to the department (Electronic Records, manned by a single person) is becoming increasingly overwhelming, magnified by the lack of an audiovisual specialist.This has been a great example of how audiovisual archiving remains this misunderstood other that is neglected in many institutions. It's been very interesting to see the way audiovisual materials are viewed in a paper-based archival institution.

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