Benign Neglect Is Not A Preservation Strategy

October 22, 2012

I rarely rewatch movies or reread books. My urge when given a choice is to opt for something new to me. I know some would say I’m missing out on uncovering new layers or new understandings of a “text”, but I suppose any anxiety coming out of the thought that I many suddenly be cornered into a conversation about the referential hermeneutics of De Palma’s mid-career oeuvre is lesser than the anxiety over the fact that there’s a whole mess of stuff out there to wade through in a limited amount of time.

Another anxiety I have is that upon rereading/rewatching something, I just won’t feel the same passion or interest as I did the first time. The humor won’t tickle as much, the thrills won’t be as knuckle bleaching, and the drama will be more mellow than Melo-. Not only would it sadden me to piddle away two hours on lukewarm enjoyment, but it would also sadden me to have my pleasant memories decayed much more quickly than is already happening by the ravages of time and whiskey.

It sounds silly, but I don’t think it’s that odd of a fear. It certainly has happened to me (and I assume others) before. At one level I’ve often read film critics talk about reassessing a film outside of the initial context/emotion of a film festival setting. On a personal level I’ve made a number of attempts to revisit works I passionately adored in high school and have been left rather flat. That being the case one has to recognize that tastes shift with age and awareness, and adolescence, with its high emotions, bitter dislike of hypocrisy, and obsession with defining the self, is well fed by the Orwells, the Rands, and the Thoreaus with their stark, unyielding philosophies and allegories of struggling against the masses.

You have to figure that teachers love having Orwell, Rand, et al at hand because their styles do appeal to students, but also because the literary starkness does lend itself to use (and instruction) of tropes in a way that sticks up out of the ground for readers to trip over: Allegory, irony, paradox, hyperbole, satire, oxymoron…

Oxymoron. That was our favorite. One, it sounded funny. Two, it was great nerd humor (Pretty ugly. Bwaa haa haa! Business ethics. Bwaa haa haa! Military intelligence. Bwaa haa haa!). Three, it was a tool for us to see through what the Man was pushing through His linguistic flim flam.


Ah, youth! More fleeting than magnetic media yet, at times, as deeply ingrained as grooved media, fluttering through time in brief moments of beauty beween the pops and cracks of age. Yet still, amidst the melancholy, my own youthful fist shakes in the air again (unless that’s my Old Man fist shaking at the kids to get off my lawn).

And what burr is under my saddle this time? The great oxymoron of our field, the concept of benign neglect that has been tolerated as something…benign…for too long. Considered favorable, even.

I wonder, how did this idea become accepted practice? My natural disposition toward the expectation of human failure chalks it up to a redefinition of a lucky coincidence. This film was left for an extended period with no archival type care :: The condition is fine :: We can keep doing this as a matter of policy. My paradoxical (aha!) other natural disposition toward empathy understands the resource challenges involved in managing collections and overcoming backlogs. We have to find the level of what is enough to do to properly care for collections in a way that can be efficiently applied across the most assets. I suppose benign neglect fits here perfectly because it can be done all at once to an entire collection no matter the size.

But no. I refuse to believe this is a viable preservation strategy. I refuse to believe that funneling collection management decisions through the expectation of failure (I will not be able to do anything about this so I will not) is an acceptable option. To be a strategy there must be some definition of process and application. Which formats and format qualities does it apply or not apply to? How long of a term should it be applied before items are reviewed for condition? At what point in an assets lifecycle can it reasonably be applied or when is it too late? How do you underscore the “in correct conditions” caveat? And how do you stop the ideology to creeping into areas where it should not be used, where it could be harmful, or where action cannot be put off anymore?

The fact of the matter is that declaring an ideal preservation format must support benign neglect as a strategy subsumes the fact that millions of assets exist already for which such an approach is not possible or that need to be reformatted now.

Failure happens.

Things go a way.

Things are lost.

From my point of view, benign neglect sees these facts and adopts a plan for giving up before starting, rather than giving it a best effort despite the certainty that those efforts will fall short. Neglect is not benign because it is a choice one makes not to act, not just something that happens. The only time neglect is benign is when one refuses to answer phone calls from telemarketers.

Bwaa haa haa!!

—¬†Joshua Ranger