Dan Erdman

Access to Moving Image Collections

CINE-GT 1803

Nov. 7, 2011

Access Policy Comparison:

The Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research and The Explorers Club

The Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research

        If anything, the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research's online presence offers too many avenues for online access, and not quite enough cooperation between them. A Google search for the name of the archive directs the user first to a page hosted by the Wisconsin Historical Society. The Center is (to slightly oversimplify the case) jointly run by both the Historical Society and the University of Wisconsin Department of Communication Arts, so it would stand to reason that its online home wold be through one of these institutions.

        The Historical Society site contains brief descriptions of the holdings of film, television, theater and publicity materials in the WCFTR, but the only search function available is through something called the Feature Film Database. The search interface consists of five fields - title, production company, country of origin, director and year - with the results supplying not only that information but available viewing format, running time, distributor and call number.

        So, as an example: searching for Public Enemy in the title field yields this result:

PUBLIC ENEMY (1931)

Running Time: 74 minutes

Director: William A. Wellman

Production Company: Warner Brothers

Distributor: Warner Brothers

Country: USA

Format: 16mm

Call Number: FB 865-867

        If this was the only means of searching the materials in the Collection, the web presence of this institution would be weak tea indeed. However, buried within the Historical Society’s page is a link to the real online home of the Center. This site - administered by the UW Communication Arts Department - offers a better look into some of the holdings of the Collection, though it too falls behind in some aspects.

        The front page of the Center's site contains links to pages explaining the mission and history of the institution; in addition, other pages explain the its relationship to the Wisconsin State Historical Society and feature some of its most important collections, including the papers of Kirk Douglas, Edith Head and Robert Altman. The latter pages even contain scans of individual items from these collections (displayed in .PDF format), although this is more for the purposes of promotion than proper access.

        The “Search” link presents the researcher with two options for surveying the collection, either via ArCAT or within the individual collections’ finding aids. ArCAT at first seems to be the more sensible of the two approaches, as the records brought up through this service feature links to finding aids (assuming they’ve been digitized, which is not always the case). However, these two options do not necessarily provide the same kind of access.

        ArCat offers search by Author, Subject, Title, Keyword, Internet Links, RLIN Number, Organization or Conference Name and OCLC Number. Very rarely does a term that yields results in one category bring forth anything from any of the others. For example: “Altman, Robert” brings forth no results in anything but the Author field. This might speak to an over-precision in the cataloging process - would it not make sense to cross-reference this term between relevant documents in at least the Subject and Keyword fields as well? And are searches by RLIN Number and Internet Links (neither of which responded to queries of any sort that I could devise) common enough to get their own fields? Perhaps most distressingly, searching for titles of films seems to be impossible via ArCat; a query for Public Enemy turns up nothing, despite the fact that users of the Film Database search can access the record for this film with ease.

        Despite that, a precisely calibrated search will point the researcher to concrete, usable results, provided she knows exactly what she’s looking for. A search for “Altman, Robert” in the Author field leads to a detailed entry for the Robert Altman papers, listing the films documented in the file and noting that contained “in varying quantities for these films are scripts, correspondence, production schedules and reports, and promotional material. One folder of general correspondence concerns script ideas and speaking engagements."[1] Furthermore, the record provides a link (as “Register Available On-Line”) to the finding aid for this collection.

        The online guide to finding aids provide truly in-depth information to the prospective researcher in a variety of different intersecting categories. The online finding aid record displays Summary Information (such as Quantity of the collection measured in number of boxes or Abstract description of contents), Biography or History of the subject, Scope and Content Notes, Administrative and Restriction Information, a detailed Content List and, in some records, a note about the arrangement of the material. Searching within the finding aid database delivers fairly easy results - another search for Public Enemy doesn’t lead to the record for the film, but does link to various finding aids for collections in which the films figures prominently (for collections of scripts, financial documents and so forth).

        Both the Communications Arts and Historical Society sites do provide information on viewing the films on the premises. The Center appears to provide neither projection nor digital viewing copies of their films, preferring to use a flatbed Steenbeck instead. Viewing stations appear to be limited, as appointments and reservations must be made a day in advance. Both sites also mention that prospective viewers must have a legitimate research purpose, though no further information is available on how exactly legitimacy would be determined.

The Explorers Club

        The Explorers Club houses in its New York City headquarters almost 250 reels of film. Although a small portion of this material has been transferred to mini-DV access copies, the majority remains in its original format; for the film collection this means, typically, 16mm gauge and reels under 800’. The moving image collection began in 1969 with the donation of Wonders of the Sahara, an 1800-foot reel consisting entirely of footage of an African expedition shot by Club member Maurice H. Stans. Although nitrate prints were originally allowed into the collection, the club has subsequently donated these to the Library of Congress in exchange for access copies on safety film.

        The state of intellectual access to the collection, unfortunately, is not ideal. No proper catalog exists for the film holdings; a list of the titles, written on an Excel spreadsheet, is kept with the Curator, who refers to to it when answering requests from prospective researchers. None of the films are listed in the on-site card catalog, which at least provides access to the Club's paper collection. Despite the difficulties presented by this situation, the list is at least informed by AMIA cataloging recommendations. The spreadsheet contains 20 fields, including content description (such as "Place" and "Description"), physical description ("Carrier" and "Carrier Extent") and production information ("Date" and "Director"). There are some embryonic plans to put this information online at some point, preferably in MARC format.

        The access to the Club's film collection itself has evolved over the years. Initially, the collection functioned as both lending library and film lab; members were allowed to take films off the premises as well as edit their own film on the club's facilities. The Club did at one time have functioning projectors for the purposes of reference showings to the non-member public researcher. However, there is no record of this ever occurring, and current staff speculates that the equipment was only ever used in conjunction with lectures, demonstrations and other screenings for a large audience.

        Current access to the films is now quite a bit more bare-bones. While no qualifications are necessary and the archive is in principle open to any member of the public, the only equipment available on which to view the films is a set of rewinds in the basement vault area. The Club does have some projectors on site, but not only does the staff have concerns about potentially damaging the irreplaceable material through even the most careful, properly-executed projection, but the machines themselves are not currently in working order.

        The obvious answer to this situation would seem to lie in the realm of video and digitization. As mentioned above, the Club has made mini-DV access copies of a handful of its films. However, although there is some video playback equipment in the collection, these machines haven't been recently cleaned or inspected, due in part to the fact that there haven't been any requests for the video material in some time.

        Digital access, meanwhile, is an option that the staff would like to pursue; however, they would prefer to lay the foundation for sustainable, long-term means of viewing the collection in digital form (either online or on a physical medium) rather than rushing into a premature "solution." The films need to be properly preserved first, and careful consideration must be given to the format it would eventually migrate to in order to save the trouble of having to fix ill-considered actions in the future. Obviously, this would also cost money, which, even more than is the case usually, is in short supply. In any event, no one in a position of responsibility over the collection sees an improvement in the current situation anytime soon.


[1] Version:1.0 StartHTML:0000000167 EndHTML:0000000871 StartFragment:0000000552 EndFragment:0000000855                                    

ArCat. "Robert Altman Papers, 1969-1972." Arcat.library.wisc.edu. http://arcat.library.wisc.edu/cgi-bin/Pwebrecon.cgi?Search%5FArg=altman%2C%20robert&SL=None&Search%5FCode=NAME%5F&CNT=25&PID=OidXKgwpipd8Sbh6Xoo5fpZ6e3r&BROWSE=1&HC=1&SID=1