The Great Stock Hunt: An Archivist Passes Judgement on Footage: The Worldwide Moving Image Sourcebook

History is becoming big business, and nowhere more so than in film and video. It's not just The History Channel and other obvious documentary channels that are plumbing the film and tv archives of the world; more programming formats are using...
January 1, 1998

History is becoming big business, and nowhere more so than in film and video. It’s not just The History Channel and other obvious documentary channels that are plumbing the film and tv archives of the world; more programming formats are using archival footage, be it music videos, tv commercials, trivia games or irreverent comic takes on the past. Archival footage is invariably cheaper than shooting new footage and provides context and perspective that is difficult to recreate and, frequently, more unique, therefore fresher. Some bold media enthusiasts predict we might one day see as wide a variety of specialty and mass-media channels as is currently available in newspapers and magazines.

Then there are the exploding variety of moving-image reference products offered. Laser discs which have been around for almost 15 years are being superseded by another generation of ‘video-disc’ formats. We’ve seen primitive and very brief examples of moving images delivered via computers, with the expectation that this will be another growth opp for archival footage.

Now there is a comprehensive and, necessarily, bulky and cumbersome guide to this new/old world. Footage: The Worldwide Moving Image Sourcebook, published this past fall by Second Line Search, was touted as indispensable, even before its publication. With 1,300 pages, 3,000 sources (including almost 1,000 international) and listings for 700 professionals and companies providing moving-image expertise, facilities and services, no other research tool is as encyclopedic as Footage.

One can confidently state that Footage had such a solid reputation because it was a sequel to Footage ’89 and ’91: guides to North American film and video sources with which anyone doing film research in the past decade has become familiar. Filmmaker Ron Mann calls these guides the ‘yellow pages’ of film research, and acknowledges that his documentaries, which rely heavily on archives, would simply have been impossible without these guides.

The formidable and, to many, unimaginable task of compiling such a guide was conceived and carried out by Rick Prelinger, an unassuming, but most enterprising, privately based, moving-image archivist. Prelinger has himself salvaged a collection of 40,000 ephemeral (that is educational, advertising, educational and industrial titles) films known as the Prelinger Film Archives and is currently off doing a feature film based exclusively on archival footage.

The challenge of keeping up with the explosion of moving-image collections around the world has been inherited by Second Line Search, a New York City company that concentrates on providing film-research services.

Their strategy was to temporarily engage a variety of film researchers who invited, cajoled and helped the institutions respond to a six-page questionnaire. Editors compiled the responses, and developed a 200-page subject index with over 10,000 entries. It took some 15 months with a staff growing from two to 15, spending us$50,000 on phone calls and faxes alone. The results are impressive but dependent on the institutions responding. The editors are fully aware that their entries from Asia and Africa are still weak, but they expect that more collections from these countries will want to be included as they use the source-book themselves.

A more fundamental limitation of Footage as a comprehensive source is the depth of information provided by contributing institutions. The editors encouraged all respondents to provide as much detail as possible about their holdings and when they received too much info they edited it down proportionately. However, it was impossible to inflate entries. Substantial moving-image collections at the National Archives and Records Service in Washington or the Library of Congress are described in considerable length (13 pages and nine pages, respectively) and the index stands a reasonable chance of appropriately directing the researcher. Many respondents, however, offer only a brief paragraph describing their holdings, and when that description is general, the index cannot be very useful. Thus, the Footage index naturally favors the smaller, more-focused collections, where a short paragraph actually does them justice; whereas the larger, more widely-based collections, would need to take as much time as did nara or LoC in compiling their entry.

An obvious question is, why publish in hard copy? Particularly for a technologically sophisticated world that is undergoing daily change. The reply of Footage staffers, is that market research said their public wanted something that actually sat on their desks.

Still, one expects that they will be looking to also publish on cd-rom because it should then be cheaper (Footage sells for us$195 plus shipping and handling) and searching should be faster. Also, this kind of research tool is perfectly made for publication on the World Wide Web (I am told that this is in process) with direct links to the catalogues that a growing number of collections have available on the Internet.

Indeed, the beginning of such a catalogue of catalogues for moving-image archives exists: ( The dozen databases this omnibus site allows one to search is a mind-boggling research tool and works with remarkable speed.

Even relatively obscure locations and subjects yield hits, and general subjects such as ‘Canadian beer’ offered up more hits than anyone could follow up. Moreover, many of these databases allow you to easily order footage through an e-mail link. Also offers a zap request service where you can pose your query as to what footage you are seeking and the readers of this electronic bulletin board may respond as their time and energy allows. Most recently announced the ‘pre-launch’ of its digital footage-delivery network promising same-day delivery of footage, often costing less than shipping footage.

Pretty impressive, but a caution is in order. The dozen or so databases with their million shots are merely a beginning. Even the companies represented may not have their total holdings indexed and available on these searchable databases. Experienced moving-image researchers appreciate and make frequent use of, but know that they regularly have to visit particular websites or make more directed queries of the hundreds of collections not on-line. Therefore, they are also going to be acquiring Footage to help them figure out where to direct their queries, particularly for the more thorough searches beyond the shot needed for tonight’s newscast.

Another caution to keep in mind is in respect to the claims so many of the moving image archive collections are making for themselves, particularly in light of collections being bought and sold, and changing representation weekly. A large number of companies proclaim themselves ‘the world’s leading,’ or ‘largest collection.’ Obviously, all such claims warrant a dose of skepticism but such claims may also divert one from the companies with slightly more modest, but more realistic, claims – not to mention the production agencies, and the specialized and regional moving-image archives that have not begun to promote themselves. The great virtue of Footage is that it opens moving image research to this world.

Notably absent from Footage, and the various other moving-image archive collection websites are the rate-cards letting you know what such footage will actually cost you. This world is fast shifting, and rates can vary dramatically, depending on what uses you need to license, so no one wants to publish rates. For each entry in Footage, a frequent response under the heading ‘licensing’ is ‘apply for information,’ which usually means the institution will figure out what to do with your request when they receive it. And rates are negotiable – particularly if you can offer some service, footage, credit line or reciprocal arrangement.

Those of us in the moving image archive world are delighted, if also sometimes wary and definitely challenged, by the exploding business. We got together recently in Washington at the annual conference of the Association of Moving Image Archivists and surprised ourselves to find 500 are registered. This Association was only founded six years ago and has literally doubled its membership the past three years. We are having fun seeing our beloved archival records receive attention, even if we do debate at some length what is appropriate for them.

The business of moving-image archiving has not by any means peaked. History clearly has a future.

Ernest J. Dick is a consulting archivist with particular expertise in the history of Canadian broadcast. He, too, is in the book.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.