Making film history (slightly) more efficient

Film studies students and researchers will know about the fantastic work of Catherine Grant, whose blog Film Studies for Free acts as a signpost to freely available, high quality online film studies resources. In addition to this goldmine of secondary material, what could make an equally significant contribution to our ability to produce original scholarship would be the wider availability, online and for free, of primary historical resources such as film industry periodicals.

Online Goldmines
I have only recently discovered that the American Libraries section of the Internet Archive holds high resolution, fully searchable copies of the Journal of the SMPTE (and its predecessor the Journal of the SMPE) from 1930 to 1954, in addition to a number of valuable historical resources around cinematography and movie-going.

It is also encouraging that Google Books includes ‘snippet view’ versions of 59 ‘editions’ of American Cinematographer. Each edition seems to represent one volume, or twelve monthly editions, out of the almost 90 published since 1920. There’s potential here to use Google Books as a finding aid for American Cinematographer, which is very poorly indexed.

The leading Hollywood trade periodicals, the Journal of the SMPTE and American Cinematographer, are two of the best and most comprehensive resources for researching film history. They are not, however, the most accessible.

This means trouble. My research, into the history of the zoom lens in Hollywood cinematography, takes flight from the limited research that has already been published. In many cases, most notably in Barry Salt’s Film Style & Technology: History & Analysis, original sources are not cited as thoroughly as is now demanded. 

‘Real’ Research
My research begins, therefore, with a return to the source. This is a cumbersome and expensive task involving either multiple trips to, or loans from, the British Library. Then, because neither JSMPTE or AC are fully indexed, I have to page through the journals, trawling for relevant articles. 

Of course, this is the sort of thing academics love: hands-dirty, painstaking work in libraries and archive. And it feels great when it’s all done and you’ve something to show for it. This is real research. Or at least it feels like it.

In truth, there are many respects in which this activity is a waste of time – even though it is a key foundation stone of my research project. It is a waste of time because it’s been done before. A waste of time because we have the technology to make the job far simpler.

Granted, from a trawl through a run of periodicals it is possible to obtain an appreciation of the spirit of the age which you are studying. But a grasp of the zeitgeist is not always necessary. With properly digitized, full-text searchable archives of key texts, the kind of semi-speculative keyword-searching that will take me several months could be completed within a week.

Digitization Project
That would save a lot of time for a lot of people, time which could be spent on secondary reading, watching films, organising conferences and research seminars, and so on. Not spadework, but the real creative activity on which film studies relies.

An organised project to digitize foundational texts such as American Cinematographer, the Journal of the SMPTE, Variety, Motion Picture Herald, etc, would create a more fertile environment for film historians. We can’t just wait around for Google to index texts, and nor can we rely upon the sometimes-dubious claims of the Internet Archive to be indexing ‘out of copyright’ works.

If anyone is aware of any such resources hidden away on the internet, please let me know in the comments.

Posted in: Blog

Written by Nick Hall