An archive paradox

May 30, 1997

WITH reference to your article on access to archives (THES, May 9), I should like to point out that many of the problems examined in this piece are ones which students and acadmics working in film and media studies have to address every day, and are by no means restricted to the whims of institutional archivists.

The publication and legal deposit arrangements which effectively guarantee scholarly access to printed, published material have never existed in the case of audio-visual artefacts. Thus, film studies must surely be unique among humanities disciplines in that its purpose is the study of what are and always have been commercial assets, access to which is dictated by commercial prerogatives.

In the absence of a formal system of legal deposit and copyright libraries, various schemes have emerged in a bid to fill the void. The Educational Recording Agency issues licences allowing educational exhibition of most video recordings, and the British Film Institute's National Film and Television Archive (NFTVA) - among others - has a large collection of viewing prints available for non-commercial researchers to view at a nominal fee. But even the national collection has significant gaps, and the preservation rules necessary to prevent a film from destruction often result in material being unviewable. The only other option available to most universities is to hire films in the same way, and at a similar price, to commercial cinemas. Needless to say, the state of funding in humanities departments means that this is not an option for many institutions.

Those who question the academic validity of the subject frequently cite the profusion of "University of Poppleton"-type courses based on mainstream US cinema, and what must seem like the uncritical canonisation of certain directors, movements and genres.

A major reason for this is that market forces dictate what remains in distribution, and avant-garde documentary or Weimar expressionism hardly qualifies. For until we have a comprehensive system of statutory legal deposit and public access for non-print materials (the NFTVA has been arguing for this for years), the paradox remains: if you had the foresight to record that obscure 'B' film on Channel Four one afternoon in 1989, you may use it, legitimately, as the basis of an entire undergraduate module, or even write a thesis about it. If not, it may take weeks of searching and hundreds of pounds for the privilege of a single viewing.

Leo Enticknap

PhD student, school of English and American studies, University of Exeter

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