History’s Keeper: The U.S. National Archives

'If you've seen one change of command ceremony you've seen them all,' says researcher Karen Wyatt recalling a disappointing discovery she made at the U.S. National Archives. While working on a war documentary, she reviewed hour after hour of U.S. Navy...
February 1, 2000

‘If you’ve seen one change of command ceremony you’ve seen them all,’ says researcher Karen Wyatt recalling a disappointing discovery she made at the U.S. National Archives. While working on a war documentary, she reviewed hour after hour of U.S. Navy commander footage, faithfully preserved in the military film collection. What she really wanted to see was footage of shipboard life listed in the Navy’s catalogue. Some of it had been used in the 1950s NBC series Victory at Sea, but the reels were gone. As she eventually learned, the footage had been discarded.

Talk to longtime researchers like Wyatt and you’ll hear many similar laments about destroyed or lost footage. Some reels, like Universal Newsreel outtakes, were burned in the Archives’ nitrate fires of 1976 and 1978. Other material, like some March of Times news-reel outtakes, were thrown away because they did not meet the Archives’ preservation criteria.

The National Archives has a profound effect on how documentaries get made. Nowhere else can filmmakers find so much public domain footage for so little money. But if the National Archives’ film and video collection is to be the people’s de facto visual memory, it raises the question: What gets omitted, and how is that determined?

This question is vital for a public that increasingly relies on television for its history. But only a small number of specialists have followed the haphazard growth of the National Archives’ audio-visuals or understand what’s at stake for its future. Among the most knowledgeable followers are a dozen or so doc researchers like Wyatt, who have been using the collection for 10 to 20 years each. ‘Between us,’ she says, ‘we’ve probably contributed to 75% of the major documentaries you see on television.’

Over the years, she and fellow freelancers have formed a series of ad hoc coalitions to lobby for reform of the Archives’ policies. ‘Those of us who are there every day will be the most critical,’ observes Bonnie Rowan, author of The Scholar’s Guide to Washington D.C. Media Collections.

Their greatest success was a letter-writing campaign in 1992 demanding greater access to screener tapes. When the group found allies in Congress and at The Washington Post, the Archives responded with improvements at the new facilities in College Park, Maryland. Now researchers can bring VCRs or cameras to make copies from the 3/4-inch screener tapes, a practice unheard of at the Library of Congress or the Smithsonian Institute.

Veterans of the 1992 campaign, like Rowan and Wyatt, feel proud of their gains, but seek more accountability about the decisions to acquire or neglect footage. The researchers complain that the Archives’ protocol is shrouded in bureaucratic mystery. After all, they argue, public taxes pay for the footage, so the public has a right to know.

According to its website, the Archives puts a premium on saving records that document ‘the rights of American citizens, the actions of federal officials, and the national experience.’ It’s by implementing this vague criteria that images of Navy commanders have been saved while those of shipboard life has been discarded.

‘In this age of abundance you can’t keep everything,’ explains Bill Murphy, who served in the Archives audio-visual department from 1967 until his retirement last December. Staff have to comply with whatever the current management’s definition of the Archives’ mission happens to be, he says. Murphy was chief of motion pictures for 16 years, until 1992 when he shifted to working on special projects.

Every format has its own problems, from the flammability of nitrate film to the decay of acetate film (known as ‘vinegar syndrome’) to the brief shelf life of videotape. Operating under government budget constraints, the administrators are forced to practice a painful triage out of necessity rather than choice.

In the beginning…

When the National Archives was first established in 1934, few people could have predicted how important it would become. Back then, archiving records meant mostly storing paper documents. But as film production increased throughout the government – including the branches of agriculture, energy and, most prominently, the military – the National Archives’ motion picture department began to expand.

One momentous surge in growth happened during the 1960s and ’70s, when several non-government collections were donated to the Archives. Today, filmmakers treasure these collections because many of them were deeded into the public domain. The copyright-free collections include: newsreels from Universal Pictures; educational films from the Ford Motor Company; newsreel outtakes from the March of Times; social documentaries from the Harmon Foundation; and kinescopes of political interviews from the Longines television series.

The donors thought they were getting a deal – handing over costly preservation chores, receiving tax write-offs and doing a public service all at once. Few people could have predicted that the expansion of cable television and non-fiction programming would later open new markets for the footage.

‘Whoever made the decision at Universal would be shot today for giving away the store like that,’ chuckles Bob Summers, who ran Film Audio Services, an archive now repped by The Image Bank. Other U.S. newsreels – including Paramount, Fox Movietone and Hearst – are still controlled by commercial stock houses that charge as much as $4,500 per minute to license their footage. When it comes to Universal Newsreels, the National Archives charges only transfer fees, which rarely amount to more than $250 per minute.

The National Archives doesn’t function like a stock house, however. It’s hard to conduct an elaborate search without hiring a researcher at $250 to $350 a day. There’s also a wait. The Archives can take over two weeks to process an order that a commercial outlet might supply overnight. In addition, some National Archives footage has copyright restrictions that aren’t always apparent.

Over the years, entrepreneurs like Summers recognized these drawbacks. They built companies by purchasing copies of public domain footage from the National Archives and re-selling them to clients who needed better service. Today, several commercial stock houses re-sell public domain footage that originated from the National Archives for up to $75 per second.

Feeling the squeeze

The cost differential between commercial stock houses and the National Archives can sometimes make or break a doc. That’s why the Archives’ policies over the years have inspired such passionate feelings among its patrons.

Many researchers still resent how the Archives handled a large transfer of footage from the Department of Defense in 1991. At the time, Norton Air Force Base in California was shutting down its storage facilities which housed the post-WWII film collections of the army, navy, air force and marines. The holdings totaled over 350 million feet of film (by one researcher’s estimate), including footage from the Korean and Vietnam wars. The National Archives had neither the staff nor budget to take everything, so they concentrated on taking edited films and important outtakes. The rest was left behind for Norton’s workers to throw away.

‘I saw dumpsters full of film,’ recalls Susan Scheer of Great American Stock, who was then researching at Norton. ‘How valuable it was I can’t tell you. Unless you look at it, you don’t know what you’re throwing away.’ She complains that the Archives made decisions about what to keep based on written logs rather than screening the footage. When she protested to the Archives staff, she says the response was ‘we’re doing what we can, the rest is none of your concern.’ Her suggestion that the leftover footage be donated to another archive was rebuffed. ‘They didn’t want to show favoritism.’ And her attempts to bring public attention to the dumping were over-shadowed by the Gulf War, then in progress.

‘The Norton shipment really tested our resources,’ admits Murphy, who was chief of motion pictures when the collection was acquired. He estimates that the Norton footage increased the Archives’ holdings by 25% to 30%.

Murphy, who has since started his own consultancy business (AV Archives), is now concerned with the new challenge of preserving fragile videotape. Unlike film that can be preserved in cold storage for up to 100 years, video starts to deteriorate after ten years under any conditions. ‘Vietnam was the last war shot on film,’ Murphy notes. ‘Our visual record of Grenada, Panama, the Gulf War and Bosnia are all in danger.’

Besides rescuing video, the Archives will face many new demands in the digital age. With the introduction of its website ( four years ago, one major task ahead will be cataloging the whole collection on-line. Currently only 30% of the holdings appear on the web.

‘The computer is a blessing and a curse,’ cautions researcher Lisa Hartjens of Image Finders. ‘It creates the impression of ease but it doesn’t eliminate the digging.

If you don’t use the right word, you won’t find your footage. For instance, if you type in `kamikaze’ you’ll get a small number of hits. You have to enter `suicide plane’ to get the rest.’

‘The government’s history and people’s history aren’t the same thing,’ stresses researcher Joan Yoshiwara. She worries about the Archives collection dominating documentaries too heavily. ‘There’s a reason you see a series like Wings being made. It’s easy to find cheap airplane footage. By default you’re getting what the military decides to turn over as a record of history.’ She yearns for leaders at the Archives to take a more proactive approach to

filling holes in its collection.

Unfortunately, such leadership seems to be diminishing rather than strengthening. Two years ago, the National Archives restructured its staff, creating a ‘Special Media’ department that lumps together film, video, audio, still photography and cartography. The move eliminated the chief of motion pictures position and transferred decision-making to a team of administrators.

‘Everything has to get processed and stored properly,’ explains Les Waffen, a 30-year veteran of the Archives’ audio-visual department who now serves on the Special Media team. The advantage of the consolidation is that ‘you can do a lot of things at the same time. The disadvantage is your staff has to become everything for everyone. Sometimes you lose expertise.’

The Special Media department’s $2.5 million annual budget can barely keep up with internal demands, let alone outside expectations. Longtime researchers complain that in the new structure, no one person is held accountable. Meanwhile, new acquisitions are a low priority. Those who want the Archives to be more proactive will have to resort to more organizing and lobbying.

‘Mistakes have been made, but what comes out of there is pretty damn good,’ says Adrian Wood, a British researcher with Trans World International, in defense of the Archives. Wood recently completed a documentary series called The Second World War in Colour using footage from the National Archives. ‘We pulled out over 100 hours of color footage. I think I could pull out another 250 without much trouble. That collection will surprise the world for many years to come.’

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