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.
There is no question that, as we look to the end of this century and how our time will be remembered, we will look back at our news and our culture through moving image and recorded sounds. Exactly 20 years ago, in October 1997, the Library of Congress issued its first report—“Television and Video Preservation 1997”—on the need to address the challenge of this curatorial responsibility. The experts whom the library assembled addressed the “historical and cultural value of American broadcasting materials as a key to understanding our civilization”—and called upon American society to support this work even then, because so many film and audiovisual assets were already being lost due to physical degradation of the recording media, a lack of focus by archivists, the obsolescence of playback machines, and more. “Sadly,” Librarian of Congress James H. Billington wrote in his preface,
we have not yet sought to preserve this powerful medium in anything like a serious or systematic manner. At present, chance determines what television programs survive. Future scholars will have to rely on incomplete evidence when they assess the achievements and failures of our culture.
Today the major government funders for this work—at the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Library of Congress, the Institute for Museum and Library Services—are able to support only a fraction of what has now become, predictably enough, the fastest-growing collection challenge for archivists and librarians. And the major private philanthropies active in digital preservation—the David H. Packard Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation—are not yet able to support the rest of it.
We need to establish a new national initiative to review the agenda of that 20-year-old Library of Congress report and recommit our to the call for more systematic approaches to supporting the preservation, access, funding, and public awareness of this part of our history and culture. The situation is even more urgent today. As the 1997 Library of Congress report also came out before widespread use of the Internet, we now need to develop national strategies for publishing and distributing our digitized and born-digital archival material as well—working with the burgeoning internet presences of our time, too: nonprofits such as the Internet Archive for preservation, Wikipedia for engagement, and enterprises such as YouTube and Google for improving search and discoverability.
In building a new national initiative, and in enabling ourselves to more systematically publish the documentary record of our time online, we’ll also be taking a forward step in battling the way our media ecosystem that is rapidly becoming weaponized, divided, and politicized. Our young online universe itself is under explicit attack by many of the forces that helped to propel Donald Trump and others like him into high office. The Guardian’s reporting; Columbia Journalism Review’s analyses; the Pew Research Center; and others have detailed these systematic efforts to game search algorithms and swamp the internet with falsehoods so brazen that they are almost—but not quite—beyond belief. A new, coordinated effort to preserve our audiovisual heritage needs to absorb these challenges into its mandate—much as the 1967 Carnegie Commission that helped to establish public broadcasting had surveyed and understood the commercial media landscape 50 years ago. A stronger network of institutions—archives, libraries, museums—now needs to be catalyzed into action.
Most of the early-20th-century films produced and released in the United States are now lost forever—they weren’t shared that widely, and they weren’t preserved (early film also burned). As the 1997 Library of Congress report points out, many more recent losses stare back us, too—including the coverage of the opening of the 1939 World’s Fair, all TV coverage of the 1948 presidential election, most local news broadcasts before the late 1960s, and more.
We can’t allow ourselves to let press conferences about essential topics like race and equality—or any candidate’s important statements, actually—go the same way. Knowing the past, and connecting to it, is essential to progress. It is no accident that the etymology of the word “archive” comes from the Greek ἄρχω—to begin, rule, govern—and thus no accident that “archive” shares the same root as the word for monarch or hierarchy. Archives started in the archon—the seat of government—and the centrality of the power of the archive is likely to be the story of the 21st century. As the recent scrubbing of government websites has shown, we must rely on non-governmental institutions to help ensure that our archives are never permanently altered to reflect political expediencies.
Indeed, we should ensure that the video records of presidential press conferences, banking debates, foreign-policy debates, and all such public activity is preserved and remains accessible to future citizens, journalists, and political figures. We need to recommit to preserving all of our televised triumphs and tragedies, going back through the moon landing, Watergate, the Zapruder film, and further. Just about every political statement and every cultural program will matter to the historians who emerge in coming decades and suffer the misery of looking back on what the 1997 Library of Congress report called “the achievements and failures of our culture.” The new, bold strategies that we articulate for preserving our history and culture and publishing knowledge going forward will have a major role to play in seeing to that.