Curating Archives in a Digital Age

by criticalhit009

In my class on research and methodologies of film, we recently explored the area of Archival efforts and Orphan films. While we discussed this issue mostly from the academic side, I jotted down numerous organizations whom I consider to also be archivists, curating content in such a way enable by a digital age.

Educational

  • The first that came to mind was the Public Domain Review, a site dedicated to curating public domain works through its collection pages and essay output. This is a site that leans towards the academic side, and is a wonderful resource for finding the best in older public domain works.
  • Open Culture also leans towards the academic, dedicated to collected free education and entertainment resources around the web.
  • While Open Culture and Public Domain Review cover public domain sources, Brain Pickings often performs full exegesis on particular segments of books, essays, novels, literature, and other forms of the written word still covered under copyright.

Humor

  • Mystery Science Theater 3000 started it all: humorously commentating on terrible public domain films. The following sites listed are deeply indebted to what has become a cultural institution.
  • Found Footage Festival digs into the thrift stores and the yard sales of America to find the wonderful and weird oddities of the VHS boom, from the professional to the amateur. It changes the typical riffing structure of commentary over clips to having commentary in between them to better suit a live audience. Clips are generally minimally edited, sometimes strung together within a thematic montage.
  • Everything Is Terrible is a similar program to the FFF, though tends to have a greater focus on 80s cheese (at least in marketing) and is also more liberal in terms of its youtube archive. EIT makes heavy use of editing, chopping up the source material to its most potent material, while often creating humorous juxtapositions through its editing style.
  • Red Letter Media‘s humorous show Best of the Worst curates the worst of bad films, usually those orphaned on VHS during its boom of the 80s and 90s.

Fan Communities

  • Siskelandebert.org is a site dedicated to archiving every Siskel and Ebert movie review show, as the master tapes of many of their works were not saved. More frustratingly, Disney removed their Buena-Vista archives of the show from the internet after the At The Movies show ended. It was a sad day when I found they were gone, as it was a favourite past time of mine to pour over those archived reviews. Luckily, fans of the show saved their VHS tapes and and even acquired broadcast tapes. While the home VHS copies were originally uploaded to youtube, the new site has become the fan community’s home.
  • Cinemassacre is the home site of James Rolf, AKA The Angry Video Game Nerd. While best known for his humorous work on video games, he is actually a larger fan of film. His own collection of films, from VHS, to LaserDisc, to DVD, to Blu-Ray is extensive, as well as his knowledge of film, particularly of the horror genre. Of his many archival and curatorial efforts, such as his annual Monster Madness videos, I must also highlight his wonderful work in discussion the history of TNT’s MonsterVision as an example of his excellent archival and curation skills. His archives of old MonsterVision content are fascinating, as well as his attempts in recreating MonsterVision’s classic opening sequence.

What can we learn from these various archives?

  1. Archiving is a communal act. Maintaining an archive by oneself is incredibly difficult if you intend to share it. Digital technologies have greatly enabled such curatorial efforts, but the works of larger groups create a much broader reach of content.
  2. Professional vs. fan archives is an interesting categorical split. While most of the archives or curation projects have element of all three themes, for the primarily educational curators, their web curation is their job and therefore have a stronger element of professionalism to cater to a wider audience.
  3. Where do the K-Mart tapes fit in? As digital technologies allowing for easy upload and access to the web, I find more and more pieces of ephemera such as this flood the web, preserving throwaway moments of the time that end up reflecting the era a lot more that you’d expect.
  4. It is clear to me that I have the most amount of knowledge about the fan communities, as well as the most passion for them.
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