Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Moving Images and Archives

Two recent books provide some interesting perspectives on film and archives. Jon Lewis and Eric Smoodin, eds., Looking Past the Screen: Case Studies in American Film History and Method (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007) provide a collection of essays that “together demonstrate the possibility of film scholarship without films; for using primary materials other than films themselves for examining the history of the cinema in the United States” (p. 2). The various contributors to this volume believe that the “primary materials for studying industry, regulation, and reception cannot be the films themselves. Instead, they will most typically be on paper (and on microfilm and the Internet) as the material evidence left, for instance, by fans, censors, critics, and government officials; in other words, the very materials most often studied by institutions working in other disciplines” (p. 5). These essayist draw on personal papers, newspapers, magazines, trade materials, fan magazines, studio publications, industry records, educational materials, research publications, and government records. The editors note that this volume is intended to be used by film scholars and undergraduates in film history classes, and archivists interested in film studies also will want to peruse this volume, especially as the editors intend their collection to be “contributing to an ongoing historiographic project in film studies, one that asks questions about methods in history and theories of historical understanding” (p. 29).

Dana Polan, Scenes of Instruction: The Beginnings of the U.S. Study of Film (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007) is an account of the develop of courses and programs in film studies from about 1915 to 1935, most notably Columbia University, New York University, Harvard University, the University of Southern California, and Syracuse University. Polan’s detailed study is an example of the approach represented in the Lewis and Smoodin collection, while providing both an in-depth analysis of the origins of a profession and another useful study on the history of American higher education. Throughout the volume, Polan provides tantalizing assessments of discoveries in archives; for example, in his chapter on Harry Alan Potamkin, Polan writes, “In the papers of the influential film critic Harry Alan Potamkin . . . there was found ‘A Proposal for a School of the Motion Picture,’ a program never implemented partly because Potamkin died at a young age in 1933 (p. 236). Polan’s work provides both an excellent historical background on film studies and a model for how to draw on the archival sources documenting the early years of the field.

From an archival perspective, I wish both volumes would have gone a little farther. The various essayists in the Lewis and Smoodin volume could have been a bit more explicit in their use of archival sources, or, there could have been a separate essay on the topic of the archival materials. Likewise, Polan could have provided an appendix describing the nature of the archival sources he drew upon. However, this is a minor quibble.