8/26/2005

Open the archives! Bill Gates bought the Bettman Archives

Bill Gates bought the Bettman Archives, now housed underground in Pennsylvania. It is imperative these documents are copied and brought into the public domain. The revisionist historians of the right can only do so if they accomplish the task of hiding our archives from public view. Please urge Bill Gates to bring the archives to the light of day.

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

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 films

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, Ind.

"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 www.archive.org/movies) 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.

Open the archives! | April 25, 2001 | SFBG S.F. Life

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