Transcript for Episode 1: Welcome to The Archive

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Episode 1: Welcome to the Archive

Beyond Scope and Content: Hidden Histories from the Film Archive

HP: Hannah Palin

[Begin transcript 00:00:09]

HP:  Welcome to Beyond Scope and Content: Hidden Histories from the Film Archives. My name is Hannah Palin and I’m the Moving Image Curator at the University of Washington Libraries.  I’m about to take you on a deep dive into a few of our collections featuring women filmmakers. Now you probably haven’t heard of these artists. They’ve been overlooked or they’ve faded from our collective memory. But the thing is their work is sophisticated and passionate and just really surprising. So after you finish listening to this podcast, you’re going to need to go watch their films. Trust me. Let’s get started.


HP: I’m an archivist. It’s what I do. It’s not what I meant to be when I grew up, but when I grew up, I found myself taking care of old things which in turn brought me to the world of archives. At work, these things are films and videotapes. At home, it’s hundreds of artworks inherited from my biological father.


HP: All of this stuff, cardboard boxes crammed with correspondents, photographs, home movies, diaries, is put into impeccable order by archivists like me in the hope that it will provide meaning and historical context to researchers and historians. It’s a noble calling and one that brings order to chaos.


HP: What’s missing, though, are the stories, not the dry biographies, and boiled down historical notes. The real people behind the stuff. The best part of my job is pulling at the threads of the life left behind in all of those boxes. I thought our first episode would be an ideal moment to introduce you to an archive, what it is and how people use it. According to Wikipedia, an archive is an accumulation of historical records in any media or the physical facility in which they are located.


HP: Archives contain primary source documents that have accumulated over the course of an individual or organization’s lifetime and are kept to show the function of that person or organization. A primary source is a first-hand contemporary account of an event or topic. For instance, someone wrote a letter or they took a photo shot, a home movie, recorded an oral history.


HP: You know, it’s the cool stuff that takes your breath away when you find it crammed in a drawer hidden in the back of a closet at your recently deceased Aunt Bonnie’s house. Some of you may be familiar with what an archive does and how people use it, but my guess is that there are people like me who had absolutely no idea what an archive really is.


HP: You know that last scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark? You’ve just spent two hours following the amazing adventures of Indiana Jones as he outruns a giant boulder, escapes a pit of snakes, and outsmarts the Nazis. You’re invested in this object. You’re rooting for Indy. The Ark of the Covenant is locked away in a wooden box “Top Secret” stenciled on its side and wheeled off to a warehouse never to be seen again.


HP: I kind of think this is how most people perceive of archives. They’re dusty, cavernous places where cool things are hidden away by gatekeepers who won’t let you in unless you are a serious researcher. Or many of you just think of an archive as something digital online that can be accessed with the touch of a button. Wrong. All of them.


HP: Archives are actually super interesting places filled with, yes, boxes of photographs and letters and objects, but they are accessible and archivists like me want you to see everything to be able to touch, look at experience, read everything, everything. Sometimes that’s not possible because that letter photo thing is really, really old and needs to be handled with care. But archivists are all about access. Trust me.


HP: So the first thing is how do things end up in an archive anyway? Often they are a lifetime accumulation of materials that have research value: photographs of the Klondike Gold Rush or the Space Needle being built for the 1962 World’s Fair. They could be correspondence left by someone of note like the papers of Senator Warren Magnuson or Scoop Jackson. It could be that someone inadvertently created something of value by shooting home movies of downtown Seattle in the 1930s. Or they kept a diary of their move to the Northwest. Or they produced newsreels of Aberdeen, WA in the 1920s. Collections come to us from scholars and collectors from people of note and everyday folk.


HP: Now you may ask, “What on earth is a moving image and why are you the curator of moving images?” Well, that last part I can’t answer except for that it’s my job, but moving image is actually a fancy term for film and video. For some reason, audiovisual went out of vogue somewhere along the way and was replaced by moving image. For the record, A/V is making a comeback. It’s a way of distinguishing images that move from those that don’t. I know that’s really simplistic, but it’s kind of the way things go.


HP: It’s only been in recent years that archives have become interested in film, video, and audiotape. They’ve come in with collections of personal papers or institutional records, but no one has paid much attention. The work of the moving image archivist is relatively new, just as the media has only existed over the past 100 plus years. So what is a moving image collection? So it might be a shoebox filled with home movies shot by a local family of their business, their kids, their travels, whatever they thought, was important at the time.


HP: It might be a truck filled with a lifetime of film and video tapes used to create dozens of titles aired nationally on public television. Or it could be decades of stories comprising the entire news library of a local television station. We got all of those at Special Collections at the UW. So when we get that shoebox or moving truck, we assess the condition an content, create an inventory, and then try to impose some order chronologically, by title, by subject, by project. We’ll make a collection guide that describes who made it and what’s in it. It might be a quick sketch.


HP: Think about a Wikipedia entry that’s only one or two lines long. Or it could be a detailed listing of hundreds of items individually. The collection guide helps the archive and the researcher find out exactly what’s sitting on all of those shelves in Special Collections. So a researcher will discover a collection through the guide that links to films, images, or PDFs, and all of those can be viewed or listened to online. But I just have to put a side note in here.


HP: Digitizing takes a lot of time and funding that archives don’t always have. I mean, just think about all those projects that you start that you’re going to scan all the slides that your Uncle George left you, or you’re going to organize every single photo you took of your kids when they were little. It sounds so easy, but the actual work is dreary and time-consuming and usually don’t finish.


HP: It’s the same thing for an archive charged with digitizing 1500 slides or 75 reels of film, except we have to finish no matter what. Sometimes we can’t get everything on to the interwebz, and researchers have to actually come to Seattle or request copies that might incur reproduction fee. Neither one of those scenarios is ideal, but it is the way the world works.


HP: So it just occurred to me that I also need to let you know what a Scope and Content note is because of course I’ve called this podcast Beyond Scope and Content. So according to the Society of American Archivists, a Scope and Content note is the following: Scope and content notes are part of finding aids, otherwise known as collection, and catalog records. Give information relating to the general contents, nature, and scope of the described materials, noting the presence of graphic or other nontextual materials such as illustrations, maps, charts, drawings, plans, photographs, sound recordings, or computer files; the dates within which the material bulks largest (if appropriate); when appropriate…


HP: Oh my God. That is so boring and dry. Here, let me look at another description. According to the National Archives, a Scope and Content note is the description of the breadth and depth of the record group collection or archival materials. Scope and content note helps users decide whether they are interested in the record group, collection, or archival materials. Good Lord of mercy. Alright, none of these things are very interesting if you ask me. So I’m calling this work Beyond Scope and Content because I feel like there is so much more meat in every collection that can help inform you about what’s in there.


HP: Like why did someone make all of the stuff? Why do we care? What are the cool stories that never get told? Because as a, as a curator and as somebody that works with the archives, I get to know the people and I get to know the families and I get to know all of the details and all of the cool background that went into this. But then it gets distilled down to a couple of sentences, maybe a couple of paragraphs and it’s all really biographical and dry.


HP: And that’s what it should be for a collection guide online that’s actually an academic resource. But there’s so much more fun stuff that I want to tell people. So here’s the last question that I have for episode one. Why women filmmakers? And my answer is this: archivists are really interested in making primary sources available to the public, but we’re not necessarily in the interpretation business. That’s for historians or film makers to do.


HP: But what I found with my collections is that they were being mined for stories about unsolved murders and serial killers. Stories found primarily in our local television news collections. A few years ago, we were given a rare film of Charles Lindbergh visiting Seattle. It was noteworthy, sure. I give you that. The story went viral, so to speak, being picked up by local news, but also by the AP. And it just made me wonder what about the other collections in my care and everybody was so excited about Charles Lindbergh.


HP: What, what about the one and only filmed image that we are aware of of Seattle’s first and the nation’s first female Mayor, Bertha Knight Landes? What about Bertha for crying out loud? Anyway, so it just really made me start to think what about artists, the documentarians, the people who crafted their experience with care and grace.


HP: There are so many collections that deserve attention. So I landed on three of my favourites. There are others, and we’ll get to those at one point. The three women that we’re going to take a look at in this podcast series are Doris Chase, Jean Walkinshaw, and Ruth Kirk. And I’m looking at these three in particular because they were working at a time when women weren’t recognized for their skills as producers and as artists. It wasn’t easy to get recognized, but they did.


HP: They were products of the Pacific Northwest, and the area informed their work and their visual sense. They were working in the far left corner of the country, and as a result they weren’t always held in high esteem by the rest of the country. The East Coast bias is a real thing, y’all. Just saying.


HP: But these women worked tirelessly nevertheless to perfect their craft, explore their vision, and keep working no matter who was watching. I had the pleasure of meeting all three of these women. Their lives are fascinating. Their films are glorious explorations of our landscape and the people of our region, of color, light and sound. They are celebrations of humanity, and as such deserve to be celebrated.


HP: Today’s episode was brought to you by a grant from the Friends of the University of Washington Libraries. Thanks to Ketsia for our theme music “Hope in Endings.” A very special thanks to Sarah Meidl, without whom this episode simply would not exist. Thank you for listening and stay tuned for upcoming episodes of Beyond Scope and Content: Hidden Histories from the Film Archive. Thank you so much. Have fun out there.

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