Rick Prelinger at Economies of the Commons: The Audiovisual Commons and the Social Contract
Anyone who has visited archive.org has probably seen his name: Rick Prelinger from the renowned Prelinger Archives. For the Economies of the Commons conference, Virtueel Platform invited Prelinger to give a presentation of his work. The Prelinger archives was founded in 1983 and in 2002, the collection of nearly 60.000 ephemeral (advertising, educational, industrial, and amateur) films was acquired by the Library of Congress, Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division.
Before starting his presentation, Prelinger notes that many of the remarks in his presentation are ‘self-critical from an American standpoint.’ In Europe, some of the issues addressed have already been dealt with, or are currently being worked on. According to Prelinger ‘history has always been contesting territory and is not a warm and fuzzy place. Historical documents are kitschy and often loaded with meaning.’
Consequently, Prelinger has learned that ‘if you ask historical questions you should not request simple answers. And if you ask who controls history, don’t expect a simple answer either.’ You can start by asking questions such as ‘who were our ancestors?’ and ‘what were people doing at certain events?’ To preserve this, the role of the archiver is an important one: ‘A great deal of history belongs to individual collectors, and countless objects would not have existed if they had not been saved by archivers. The big question is: should traces of history live in private hands?’
Before going into this question, Prelinger first looks at the role of the archiver. There are different ways of collecting and archiving, but why are archives so important? According to Prelinger, ‘historical evidence is fragile’, ‘archives are vague and not based on reality’ and ‘people expect to be able to access archives when they need them (just like a garbage collector).’ In a classic approach towards the archive, they ‘no longer belong to larger organizations; for the large part they are not public institutions. They can make their own rules and they can choose to open their collections.’
Prelinger continues: ‘In some ways it might be revealing to think of archives as gate keepers; they can arbitrate, they can let certain histories pass, they can be institutes of denial as well as remembering. So, a quiet, dusty collection might be able to preserve a particular consciousness.’ Again, should the private gatekeeper be able to control history? Perhaps the recent discovery of a 16mm tape with questionable material of Marylin Monroe is an example of this. The archiver has decided not to publish it, to retain a certain public image of Monroe. However, according to Prelinger, ‘most secrets ultimately get out. Culture that is not secret, that is under copyright, will never escape the archive. There is an emerging promise of access to the past.’ But should the archiver release everything? Prelinger: ‘Sometimes we need to applaud guardianship.’
Digitization and archives
If we fast forward to our current (digital) situation, the role of the archive is undergoing change, and faces resistance. Firstly, Prelinger notes that ‘people aren’t given big money to collect online games now.’ But perhaps to greater challenge, from an American perspective, lies in the digitization of film: ‘Many archivists (in the States) are very disturbed by digitalizing films to broaden access. I speak as an archivist and we as a group are differential to copyright holders. We hear about crackdowns on pirates and think, are we next?’ Consequently, ‘most moving images remain very difficult to access and re-use. And because of the unavailability of archives, people have done many things to get their hands on things they need.’
According to Prelinger, ‘we have taken babysteps.’ But already YouTube functions as the default image of what a moving image archive should be. People get their hands on the things they need through the popular video website. As Prelinger notes: ‘We are having a hard time catching up. How do we make something with the ease of YouTube?’ He continues: ‘Until a few years ago, archival access was going downstream. But that production began to move from institution to individual. The current phenomenon is that people are doing archiving by themselves. People feel entitled to make archives, they find demands that are hard to realize.’ People also remix their personal archives, but people will continue to want the original document.
The goal of the Prelinger Archives remains to ‘collect, preserve, and facilitate access to films of historic significance that haven’t been collected elsewhere. Included are films produced by and for many hundreds of important US corporations, nonprofit organizations, trade associations, community and interest groups, and educational institutions. As a whole, the collection currently contains over 10% of the total production of ephemeral films between 1927 and 1987, and it may be the most complete and varied collection in existence of films from these poorly preserved genres.’
In the age of digitization, the Prelinger Archives was one of the first to use the Creative Commons license. Prelinger notes that this idea of the Creative Commons is still hard to comprehend: ‘How do you give away something and sell it at the same time?’ According to Prelinger, these is a two level system: Free and Fee. At the free level, you can download everything you want; complete films and more. But use is at your own risk and there is no detailed grant of rights. At the fee level, you can get physical materials and written license agreements with your name at the top.
The best archives make historical interventions
So, at the fee level, there is still no openness of physical materials. Prelinger: ‘We may want to immerse ourselves in digital objects, look at YouTube, or look at a book page, but that isn’t really openness yet.’ Continuing: ‘The kind of use that we are trying to encourage, is already happening. People already take things as being free. Our best archives make historical interventions. History as a means of intervening in the present. Archives are cultural producers too, most archives in the United States wait for people to intervene. Archives will live or die by the level that their archives are accessible.’
Still, it is important to regard our own time as being part of a flow. Prelinger: ‘The most disturbing question about “free” is: Is free culture just a fad? Remixing and sharing are deeply cultural practices, going back a thousand years. Will it devolve into a style which comes and goes? I hope we can build a commons that is more than a brand. Users are our allies and the people that can help us get funding. Engagement is up to us!’
Crossposted at Virtueel Platform
Some photography used from Kennisland (Creative Commons) www.flickr.com/photos/kl/