Does The Discovery Of ‘Lost’ Materials Help Or Harm The Archival Field?

January 3, 2012

About the only times audiovisual archiving and preservation gets mentioned in the news is when there is a re-release of a newly restored film or album, or when some amazing discovery of a ‘lost’ work is revealed (which is usually tied to the bigger story of its re-release or sale). The auctioning of the early Walt Disney film “Hungry Hobos” and the unveiling of a 1973 David Bowie performance on the BBC are just a couple recent examples. Admittedly, this is probably due at least in part to the fact that lots of archiving work is detail-oriented, quiet, technical, and repetitive at times. These are all just nice ways of saying the work is dull (at least from a news story standpoint). Most people assume that I get to watch/listen to great content all day or ask what things I have unearthed from obscurity. This makes me uncertain about whether the news stories drive their perception or if the news really is just delivering what non-archivists care about. Whatever the case, I typically (over)emphasize to people that I don’t get the opportunity to access the content I work with; it’s all about the physical objects. Boxes and boxes and boxes and shelves and shelves and shelves of objects. And drawers. And pallets. And piles on the floor.

I do have a discovery story, but I don’t really like to refer to it as such. Why? During a summer internship at the NYU Library Preservation Lab, the Tamiment/Wagner Archive received the Communist Party USA papers, a massive collection of paper, memorabilia, film, video, audiotape, and more dating back to the early 20th century. As part of a first pass at ingest, a fellow intern and myself were tapped to go through the films to looks for any major condition problems and get a very high level inventory to help with prioritization. We were excited because there was a lot of 35mm, much of it in old metal shipping containers labeled in Russian. Turns out, though, the CPUSA merely screened or distributed acceptable Soviet films, because reel after reel were prints of Russian history or war epics from the 60s and 70s, sometimes two or three copies of each. It was my first exposure to Orwo filmstock, but I’m not sure if even I am hardcore enough to have gotten really pumped about that.

But there was one particular metal box… There were some others like it, but they hadn’t had anything special in them. But this one stunk real bad-like when we opened it. I tried it first and quickly decided to attack a different box. The other intern tried later, but it was the end of a long, dusty, chemically day…and there was one more non-stinky box left for her. So after I finished what I was working on, I put on the gloves and the mask and said goodbye to my nose hairs and some brain cells. As I started pulling out reels, I noticed that the stench was more complex than a vinegar smell, that what appeared to be rust inside the can was all over the film, and that the solidification and bubbling gunk I could see through the projection reels was not typical behavior of acetate from the 1970s, whether the East Germans had made it or not. Nope, this was nitrate, and luckily most of the reels were heads out with the title cards for the reel visible. Passaic Textile Strike Reel 2Passaic Textile Strike Reel 4Passaic Textile Strike Reel 5. And so on.

After the nitrate excitement died down, my colleague began searching for the title online and found that the Library of Congress had a print, but two reels were considered lost, including reel 5. Things moved fast after that. Somebody called a contact at LOC. The head of the department and the Tamiment archivist were called in. We had to find someone with nitrate shipping certification. And soon the films were out the door to LOC. They were pretty seriously decayed, but that’s where all that slow, detailed, technical (dull) work comes in to play to do the restoration work.


Exciting stuff, but not ‘my’ or ‘a’ discovery. There were a lot of people involved in the overall process, and I was just the one to physically pull the reels out of the box and look at them. Also, the film was not truly lost or discovered. It was sitting there in a box, not caring one way or the other. It couldn’t be lost because no one was missing it. Anyone at anytime could have peeked in the box and wondered what was on those reels.

In fact, it should have been someone else. If an organization or an archive truly cares about the materials they create or collect, if they care about the investments made in creating and storing those materials, if they care about the longevity of their organization and fulfillment of organizational goals then, plain and simple, they should take care of their stuff. #tcys and whatnot.

To be clear, I’m not picking on archives here — this diatribe refers to the whole enterprise. Either you have pride in your work or you don’t, and that institutional attitude or support for it starts at the top. This doesn’t mean that the organization absolutely must care about those assets, but to market them based on quality of the content/materials or the institution’s history/dedication would seem to require a certain degree of commitment to those expressed ideals in order to retain any level of validity.


And that, my friends, is polemics (I minored in it in college). Do you agree in total? Do you reject it outright? Do you agree in principle but not in practical reality? I’d like to know, but, I feel, save for the derailment, the gauge of my original track is true. ‘Lost’ films are not the result of inevitability (unless you believe that humans will inevitably mess things up), but are lost through our own decisions at action or inaction. The celebration of their discovery turns irresponsible behavior into an applauded activity. This approval, and subsequent social/monetary benefit, promotes hoarding, negligence, and other high risk behaviors enabled by the belief that 1) the ultimate payoff will be great and 2) the material will always be recoverable.

One has to assume that, given human and corporate nature, the potential for benign neglect as a preservation strategy would become the default position in most cases. After one assumes that, one has to ask, has the line between benign and malignant ever been sufficiently delineated so as to ensure that action occurs before it is crossed, and what extra cost is incurred if that line is ignored, despite the potential capability of recovering the content? Perhaps, in this arena, we need to better document our less direct failures and losses in order to counter the distracting jubilation of films grasped from the ravages of decay, to fully delineate the real costs and risks so that we take care of our stuff in the first place or accept the decision not to.

— Joshua Ranger