As we saw in the recent #WhyAmIAnArchivist Twitter hashtag, for many people one of the inspirations to becoming an archivist is the thrill of discovering lost documents that unlock the past (or unlock an ancient vault full of gold or autopsied aliens). Life is an encoded puzzle written in invisible ink, and perhaps, just perhaps, that misplaced letter or oral history or receipt from 7-11 will shade in the image just a little bit more, enough to make out a fresh answer to the mystery or somehow better connect the present to the past.
Unsurprisingly, in the past I have railed against the perceived value of discovering “lost” archival materials. Much of that argument still stands, though it seems evidently clear, most likely only to myself and to no one else, that many of my blog posts are written from the point of view of examining a position or idea, utilizing hyperbole or strict theoretical interpretations as writing devices.
Really? I’m the only one that knew that? Forget that I said that.
Due my inability to clearly communicate, I will say point blank that the recent discovery and posting of a speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. by the UCLA Communication Studies Department is a pretty great coup, not the least of which is because a lot of MLK’s work is on strict rights lockdown by his estate and can be difficult to freely use or access. (A side digression, perhaps this is one reason we are so limited in the writings and speeches and images that get used in every documentary referencing the Civil Rights movement and in the content that gets used to celebrate today, MLK Day… And then why so many lines from speeches are cherry-picked and misinterpreted? Archives, people. Archives.)
But this “discovery” (and free distribution) also opens up a view of MLK we don’t often get to see. A new speech, yes, but also one that may reuse or rework tropes from other speeches/sermons he gave or tropes from the movement which give us insight into how he wrote, and a speech that shows the outreach work being done with college students to get them interested in the movement that illustrates the daily groundwork required to make the movement successful. We’re fortunate that MLK lived in the era of audiovisual recording so that we can have such examples of his work and better understand the power of his speaking beyond the words on the page.
But, but, but…
Okay, this isn’t a bad thing about the discovery itself, but the fact of it happening and the press around has to make one wonder, what else is out there? Any why isn’t it accessible? Considering the legacy, it seems crazy to think that a open reel tape with “Martin Luther King” written on the box was stuck away in a cabinet and left, with no record of its location or potential existence. I have to blame this at least in part on the fact that for decades audiovisual material was neglected in archives because it was considered inferior or there was no in-house expertise in how to care for it or manage collections. As a result, film, audio, and video collections have largely languished, sitting untouched, undocumented, and untransferred.
This has put us in the situation now where archives and institutions must undertake large scale assessments and preservation projects to try and preserve their audiovisual legacy. Projects that need to be completed in the very near term in order to save content before degradation and obsolescence make it impossible to do so, but also projects that have a massive price tag — both of these making it pretty much certain that large portions of collections will not be preserved. Of course total preservation is impossible, and probably not desirable, but the questions remain. What else is out there? And why isn’t it accessible?
The answer is not that it is lost, but that it has been neglected.
We need to stop that.
We need to make things happen.
Now is the time. If you think about it, really, the crisis is over. The issues have been identified and sufficiently fretted over. It is time to act to unhide audiovisual collections, to reformat them, and to move ahead with good digital preservation practices in place.
Why am I an archivist? I mean, besides the fact that I love metadata? The content of things matters much less to me than the desire to do something that makes a difference. For some that means doing research or making research more possible in order to better share knowledge. For me and at AVPreserve it means helping archivists to do that, to provide them tools, or recommendations, or support so that audiovisual and now digital collections are better cared for, and so we don’t run into another preservation crisis in the coming years like we have with AV.
One thing to glean from the UCLA speech is from its context. Of course in Dr. King’s most famous speech he speaks about a dream, about something that is possible but floating in the ether. That dream didn’t make the Civil Rights movement happen. It was getting out there day after day to work and work and work, giving speeches at UCLA and other colleges, among many other efforts, that made things happen.
You have to work to make what you care about happen.
We all work together to make it happen.
We are making it happen.