TECH/SOC: Open the archives!

From: Chris Rasch (
Date: Tue May 01 2001 - 00:17:19 MDT

Open the archives! How the open source movement is changing historic

By Joyce Slaton

IN 1935 OTTO Bettmann
preserved an invaluable chunk
of history when he sneaked
two steamer trunks of photos
out of Nazi Germany. His
collection of photos kept
growing when he began a new
life in America, and
eventually it documented
events and objects as
disparate as World War II
battlefields, Rosa Parks on
the bus, and historical
medical tools. And Bettman's
collection expanded even
after his death. In 2001 the
Bettman Archive contained an
estimated 17 million images,
some of them quite famous -
the photo of JFK Jr. saluting
his father's coffin, for
instance. But even without
the most famous photos, this
collection is unarguably a
treasure of visual
documentation from the 20th

So what did the Bettmann
Archive do with this
invaluable chunk of human
history? Why, it sold it to
Bill Gates, of course.

Corbis, the Bill Gates-owned
company that bought the
archives in 1995, will keep
almost anyone from ever
seeing them again. The
millions of images in the
archive are scheduled to be
sunk 220 feet down in a
Pennsylvania limestone
mine. They'll be placed into
subzero humidity-controlled
storage, safe forever from
both human and natural
disasters. And, by the way,
they'll also be "safe" from
anyone who might ever want to
look at, study, or reprint
the images.

Is Bettmann preserving part
of our history or locking it
up and throwing away the key?
Many critical archivists
claim the latter. They assert
that archivists must always
strike a difficult balance
between the twin duties of
their trade, preserving the
annals of history and somehow
providing public access to
those annals without damaging
them. By locking up millions
of images far away from human
hands and eyes, Bettmann may
have leaned tragically far
toward preservation without
concern for access.

A new generation of "open
source" archivists are
arguing that archiving needs
to change radically. Archives
shouldn't be sunk into mines,
and they probably shouldn't
be owned by large
corporations. A growing
number of these new-school
archivists, like San
Francisco's Rick Prelinger,
are creating publicly
available, free-for-all
archives on the Internet that
offer new answers to the
question of what to do with
the billions of pieces of
historical material rotting
away in libraries,
foundations, and university
archives all over the world.

Digitizing the bastard genre

Rick Prelinger wants to know
which of the more than 1,000
digitized films in his
archive I'd like to see.

"Let's see here: 'Cheating,'
'Cheerios,' 'The Chicken of
Tomorrow,' " he lists. "Oooh,
you've got to see 'Coffee
House Rendezvous' - that was
sponsored by the Coffee
Institute, and it was shown
to churches and youth
organizations to inspire them
to create coffeehouses for
the disaffected youth. And
here, 'Death to Weeds' - that
was made by Dow Chemical in
1946 to show off that miracle
new pesticide, DDT."

It's probably obvious that
the films in the Prelinger
collection aren't exactly
your big-screen Hollywood
pictures. Prelinger has a
fascination with what he
calls the "bastard genres,"
the thousands of promotional,
educational, and industrial
films created to whip up
consumer frenzies, educate
the school kiddies, and train
employees to flog company
products more properly.

Fascinated with these lost
gems, Prelinger has spent the
last 20 years locating,
obtaining, and preserving
whatever films he could get
his hands on, buying out
preprint materials from
out-of-business production
companies and old reels from
school districts and, in at
least one notable case,
liberating a substantial
number of films from the
storage closet of a retired
film director in Fort Wayne,

"There are so many of these
things out there, and many of
them were made with high
production values, yet no one
ever sees them," Prelinger
says. "On one hand they're
hilarious, yet on the other
they're an incredible
documentary of both the way
things really were as well as
our ideas about the way
things were supposed to be."

Case in point: The splendid
"Once upon a Honeymoon," a
1956 AT&T film in which an
enraptured wife sings about
the wonders of color
telephones. "It's nice to
have a telephone / To blend
with my new drapes and home,"
the housewife trills,
whirling beatifically around
her magically remodeled new
home in a fluffy pink
gown. Then there's the 1957
gem "The Relaxed Wife," a
Pfizer-sponsored love letter
to the wonders of its Atarax
tranquilizer. "Unless you
were at the Pfizer trade show
in 1957, you wouldn't get to
see 'The Relaxed Wife,' "
Prelinger says.

Until now, that is. Prelinger
is well on the way to meeting
his goal: putting digitized
copies of 1,000 - out of the
thousands of films in his
collection - online, free for
the public to access and
use. Anyone with the tech
equipment and savvy to visit
Prelinger's online archive
(housed at can
download the movies, sample
them, use them for classroom
study, run them at theaters,
or even use the footage to
make a for-profit film.

It's a rather shocking
contrast to the Bettman
Archive's approach to
preserving history, and it's
particularly surprising
considering Prelinger makes
his living selling footage
from the films to sources
such as Biography, VH1's
Behind the Music, and the now
defunct series Mystery
Science Theater
3000. However, Prelinger's
free-for-all Internet gambit
illustrates a possibility
never imagined by traditional
archivists: free access to
important historical archives
that doesn't wind up ruining
the collection.

The archivists' conundrum

Whether they work at museums,
national foundations,
libraries, or elsewhere,
traditional archivists have a
difficult gatekeeping
function. They have to make
sure the public doesn't
damage historical materials
by touching them,
photographing them, using
them, or whatever else might
be necessary to study them.

"Rare materials, particularly
older materials, are so
fragile," says David Rumsey,
and he should know: his
enthusiasm for maps and
mapmaking has led him to
collect about 150,000 rare
maps, atlases, surveys, and
other cartographic documents
in the course of more than
two decades. His documents,
mostly from 18th- and
19th-century America, are
fascinating relics that show
the limited understanding of
geography we had even just
300 years ago. He has a 1731
pocket globe that shows
California as an island.

Rumsey understands that these
historical treasures are
better seen than read about -
but display carries with it
the danger of damage. "When
you touch them with your
fingers, the oils in your
hand can damage the surface,
particularly with paper, and
exposing older materials,
photographs especially, to
light can be quite damaging,"
Rumsey says. Which is why he
has allowed only those with a
genuine historical interest
in pieces from his collection
to thumb through the
thousands of items stashed in
his San Francisco home.

"I did a lot of my learning
about maps by going to
libraries like the Bancroft
Library at Berkeley, where
I'd fill out a pink slip at
the reference desk, get my
two or three items at a time,
and go pore over them," he
says rapturously. "And
getting the chance to view
the originals was so
wonderful - the smell of the
old paper, the decaying
varnish used on old wall

But Rumsey understood that
just by bringing his maps
from their dusty storage spot
and exposing them to light
and touch, he was putting
them at risk. He couldn't
bear to see the pieces in his
own collection undergoing the
same risks. So despite his
desire to share his
collection, he kept it mainly
under wraps while he worked
at finding a solution.

Traditionally, archives have
handled the preservation
versus access conundrum in
one of two ways. The first is
the museum approach: visitors
are allowed to view
historical and artistic
documents and objects, but
the objects themselves are
kept under glass or behind
velvet ropes, restricting the
sensual, almost mystical
experience of actually
touching an object. However,
as many museums have found,
providing a space for
visitors to view their
collections is prohibitively
expensive: items must be
specially preserved and
displayed, staff must be
hired to watch over them,
space must be bought or
rented and maintained.

The second, cheaper approach
is the reference library
model championed by most
archivists and typically
found at universities and
libraries. In this model,
such archives are kept
carefully away from public
eyes and hands. Often, those
who wish to view the
materials must have some
sanctioned scholarly reason
for doing so; mere curious
looky-loos are discouraged,
no matter how sincere they
might be. And even those
archives that let practically
anyone view their contents
often insist that visitors
make viewing appointments,
arrive during certain hours,
fill out lengthy forms
requesting access, and view
only a few objects or
documents at a time.

It's no wonder Prelinger
terms this kind of access
"needlessly restrictive." To
complicate matters still
further, archives typically
don't advertise their
presence. Though Berkeley's
Bancroft Library actually
provides fairly liberal
access to its collections,
the average person would have
no idea of the treasures
contained in the Bancroft
Library, which include, for
example, Alameda land records
during the period of 1836
through 1931, Mark Twain's
private papers, original
materials from the
Haight-Ashbury district
during the 1960s, and more
than three million historical
photographs of California and
the West.

"Pieces of our collective
history are rotting away in
museums and libraries and
universities with very few
people seeing them or even
knowing they exist,"
Prelinger says. "Archivists
are caught between wanting
members of the public to see,
appreciate, and learn from
the amazing artifacts in
their collection and worrying
that giving them that access
will ruin the collection and
piss off the foundations that
support their existence."

But, as Prelinger, Rumsey,
and others have learned,
there is a middle ground, and
it can be found online.

Look Ma, no hands!

Before the Internet,
archivists had no truly
effective way of displaying
their wares. Even creating
museum space fails in certain
respects: people who wish to
view collections still have
to travel to visit the
museum's real-world space.

One of the World Wide Web's
greatest powers is as a
network. Prelinger has
created a single online
archive of his films,
admittedly at great expense
and effort, that can be
accessed by virtually
anybody, anywhere, at any
time. A person in Angola can
download "A Is for Atom" and
use excerpts for a television
show, while at the same time
a Midwestern school kid is
viewing a copy of footage
from the 1939 New York
World's Fair for a class
project. And neither of
these uses will hamper future
visitors from using the

"The key is making
collections digital," says
Brewster Kahle, the archivist
visionary behind the Internet
( His
archive's purpose is to
preserve and provide access
to copies of just about every
site on the Internet, from
the time the archive was
launched in 1996, right up
through all the pages yet to
be launched in the future. So
far the archive has collected
more than 40 terabytes of
material. To put that in
context, if you saved all the
text of all the books in the
Library of Congress in ASCII
(or text) form, it would take
up about 20 terabytes.

"In a digital age civic
institutions no longer have
to choose between
preservation and access,"
Kahle says. "You can provide
free access that doesn't
damage materials."

Creating a digital collection

Viewing a digital copy
doesn't degrade the original,
and that's part of the reason
why so many archives are
jumping on the digital
bandwagon. Yale, New York's
Museum of Modern Art,
Cornell, Stanford, the New
York Public Library, and
other entities are each in
various stages of projects
intended to present pieces
from these institutions'
substantial historical
archives online.

But making digital copies
doesn't come cheap, nor is it
easy. In fact, turning
actual objects into digital
representations is a
laborious procedure that
often must be done by hand
and at great expense. The
Internet Archive, which
funded the digital
transformation of the
Prelinger Archives and
provides the online space for
them, has spent about
$200,000 to turn reels of
film into compressed .avi and
.mpg files. Rumsey, the map
collector, has spent more
than two years and thousands
of dollars building a
customized computer
workstation and carefully
scanning thousands of paper
maps into the digital
archives, freely available at

Even when materials arrive in
digital form, cataloging,
organizing, and maintaining
files is tremendously
time-intensive. Just ask Rita
Rouvalis, who maintains the
Etext Archives
(, a collection
of tens of thousands of
e-zines, political texts,
fictional works, and
religious texts. Founder Paul
Southworth began collecting
work in 1992, and ever since
he turned the archives over
to Rouvalis in 1993, she's
spent her free time archiving
and keeping the collection up
to date.

Why does she spend her time
on a task that's unpaid and
often thankless? Quite
simply, she sees herself as a
historian. "Rants and zines
and other independent
literature tend to
disappear," Rouvalis
says. "It's out there for a
month piled in a bookstore or
handed out at a reading, and
then it's just gone. We
wanted to create something

But electronic archiving
remains expensive,
time-consuming, and not
without its legal dangers.
Archivists who keep material
in dusty old files in
university basements don't
need to worry about violating
copyright laws. But those who
publish online must have an
exquisite sensitivity to
those laws and be careful not
to reproduce anything not in
the public domain.

Witness the cautionary tale
of Eric Eldred, the man so
enraptured by digitizing rare
books that he took on U.S.
copyright laws. His case,
Eldred v. Ashcroft, has
dragged on for more than two
years, eating up tremendous
resources as Eldred and
attorneys from Harvard's
Berkman Center continue to
seek changes in copyright
law. Meanwhile, Eldred
himself has developed
repetitive strain injuries
and doesn't do as much
electronic publishing these
days. He's still digitizing
rare books to distribute at
his Eldritch Press site,
though, which exposes him to
potential criminal penalties
of up to five years in

"Is this the reward you get
for thinking the Net could be
used for more than just
distributing porn?" an
embittered Eldred asks.

But despite these drawbacks,
digital archivists remain
committed to their defiantly
noncommercial task and
devoted to the notion of
making important historical
documents - or at least
digital copies of them -
available to all. To many, it
seems that only by putting
materials online can
archivists attend to their
dual duties, both preserving
originals and allowing free
access to their digital
copies. Seeing these
reproductions may not be
quite as fascinating as
touching and holding the
original historical objects,
but it seems like the best
possible solution right now,
and it's one getting more
popular every day.

"The last time somebody tried
to collect all the text in
the world was the Library of
Alexandria, and that burned
down," Kahle says. "We're
building a memory of cultural
artifacts, and we're
preserving the material in a
way in which it can't
degrade, can't be lost, and
can be viewed by anyone with
Net access. With this memory,
with this documentation,
we're assuring ourselves that
revisionist historians can't
control the past, that no one
can control our memory of the
past, because it's right here
for anyone to see."

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