When the history of the devolution known as the Trump administration gets prepared (and may it be soon), a primary source that historians and others will rely upon will be the television record. Indeed, it’s fair to say that moving images and recorded sounds will constitute a major part of the public record of the years that we are enduring now. And as the president’s own attempts to edit the record of his public, televised appearances make abundantly clear—he famously bowdlerized his own press-conference remarks, blithely editing his previous statements about the murderous, racist violence in Charlottesville—powerful forces from the US president on down will attempt to remake, rework, reedit, and imbue with doubt the primary-source media that television networks and online-video producers bring to the public eye.
Preserving this public record—the public audiovisual record on television—and preserving online video and all audiovisual media is becoming an ever more urgent task and critical challenge for the country and the world, and especially for archives and libraries and museums (so-called memory institutions) in this, our second century of film. This is in part because moving images are the most popular form of media today—over 80 percent of web traffic is video—but also because our the president we have now is really the first television president. He’s not the first president to appear widely on television—that was JFK—but he’s the first president who seems to draw most of his information, and build and communicate with his base, through the medium.
Luckily, the profession of audiovisual archiving, as it is known, has been establishing itself as its own strong, bona fide discipline. The Association of Moving Image Archivists, founded in 1990 and over 1,000 people strong, hosts its annual conference this winter in New Orleans. The larger and much older (1977) International Federation of Television Archives, with over 200 institutional members, including most of the major broadcast networks in the United States, holds its 40th-anniversary annual meeting this month in Mexico City.
Thousands of professionals participate in these and other similar organizations—and many more are touched by their excellent work. Yet the funding mechanisms for these custodians of our rich media history are far from strong—or even assured. The largest individual initiatives in the United States—the Library of Congress Audiovisual Conservation Center and Packard Campus in Culpeper, Virginia; the National Archives audiovisual division in College Park, Maryland; the extraordinary American Archives of Public Broadcasting at WGBH in Boston; the TV News Archive in San Francisco—perform essential public services for us and our children, but on tight, even shoestring budgets. Leading university efforts—at UCLA, at Vanderbilt, at Indiana, and at the University of South Carolina, to name a few—are similarly pressured.