So, how has the digital revolution been for you?

Domitor conference taking place at the University of Brighton

I’m taking part in a panel at the Domitor conference (Domitor being the international body for the study of early cinema, whose biennial conference is taking place in Brighton). The theme is ‘Digital Technologies and Early Cinema’ and four speakers have been asked to address the subject of the digital revolution’s impact on the study of early cinema. Each of us has been asked to kick things off by speaking for ten minutes on “how the digital revolution has changed your practice”. For me, it seems appropriate to write my response in the form of a blog post. So here it is.


Hello. I was intrigued to see in the conference programme that the affiliation given with my name was not my institution but my website. My day job is curator for moving images at the British Library, where I am mostly concerned with television, news programmes and born digital media; so, the moving images of today. My hobby is early cinema, with its chief expression being a website, The Bioscope, which I maintain as an information source on those areas of early and silent cinema that interest me – and presumably others, since it enjoys a reasonably good readership for what is – let’s face it – quite an obscure subject, even within film studies.

I have been writing The Bioscope for just over five years, during which time I have produced 1,364 posts (that is, individual pieces of writing), amounting to some 600,000 words. That’s seven or eight books’ worth, had I been so inclined to write books instead, but why put the measure in books? As I often say to people when talking about the site, more people read the Bioscope in a single day than probably have read any of the articles or books that I have written or co-edited have received in years. I’m not tied down by a need to achieve a quota of academic publication for any research assessment exercise. I simply like communicating things to people. And it gets read.

The Bioscope allows me to choose whatever subject interests me, to write in a light yet informative style which suits the online medium and certainly suits me as a writer, and it gives me responses to what I am doing. Posts receives comments, the blog’s software tells me how many people have visited each piece of writing, individual posts get cited in any online (and offline) writings, and I am in contact with people from around the world, both early film scholars and those merely curious. The Bioscope is in a constant state of communication. Write poorly, or infrequently, and the viewing figures start to fall. The price paid for the attention is constant vigiliance.

I’m not interested in reviewing films, nor in giving opinions as such. The aim of the Bioscope is to communicate information, encouraging others to explore the growing range of online research opportunities for themselves. So the site has come to specialise in information on digitised journals, newspaper sources, assessments of databases and other resources, as well as promoting conferences, festivals, publications and so on, broadly relating to early and silent cinema around the world. The emphasis is on early cinema in its different contexts – film as art holds little interest for me – and on the relevance of early cinema today. If it were purely an exercise in revisiting the past, it would be pointless. Early cinema must be of interest because it is relevant, because through its study we can learn more of the world. This, for me, is what the digital revolution is doing, showing how early cinema connects with the worlds that surround it.

So, I’m particularly interested in early cinema in its various contexts – that is, the ways in which it connects with other forms of social, political, economic or cultural activity. This has been, of course, a major feature of early cinema studies in recent years, and something which Domitor itself has helped encourage through conferences such as these, with their impressive diversity of speakers and perspectives. It also connects my hobby with my work, because at the British Library I am chiefly concerned with the moving image medium as it supports other subjects, and how the digital world is providing opportunities not simply to increase access, but to facilitate the integration of diverse resources and to encourage new forms of discovery. I want researchers to pursue a particular theme and find the book, the newspaper article, the image, the sound recording and the film on that theme all in the one place, and to make exciting discoveries through these associations. And that’s what we must want for early cinema too.

Having said all this enthusiastic stuff, there are aspects to this sort of writing that bother me. Firstly, that constant vigiliance can be wearing. One feels the need always to be finding new material, to be publishing with some degree of frequency, to stay fresh, to keep up those readership figures. These maybe entirely self-imposed pressures, but they exist all the same.

Secondly, and more importantly, there is the possible impermanance of some many of these web resources on which we increasingly depend. I wrote a recent post about websites on early and silent cinema that have disappeared recently. They included such important sites as the Ariel Cinematographica Register and The Silent Cinema Bookshelf. Most websites, even after they have been taken down, can be found archived on the Internet Archive, and national libraries are increasingly moving into web archiving – the British Library hopes soon to start archiving the UK web space, for example.

But web archives take only occasional snapshots of a site – perhaps four a year – and often they do not include associated media such as video files, while databases and other such complex underlying systems are beyond web archiving. Databases cost money to support, and more money to keep them up to date (a static database is a dead database), and we can’t depend on them to remain online forever. I have worked on a number of research databases, happily all still going, but each at the whim of uncertain funding, or change in the host institution’s priorities. Crucially, links to files and pages change when sites are changed, making citation hazardous. Fundamentally the web does not stand still, for as much as it adds such huge amounts, it also loses vast amounts, as old information is overlaid by the new.

The British Library

There are significant shifts in information power relations which may affect what we can access, and from whom. At the moment, we identify most research collections with the institutions that hold the physical originals. This makes the research web very much a reflection of the physical research environment. The website and associated resources of a body such as the British Library become an extension of its physical reality.

But what happens when everything becomes digital? Who are the owners then, when anyone might manage, host or otherwise point to digital resources if they have the means to do so? What is the purpose of a physical library in a digital world? Who will need libraries or archives at all, in the long run, if Google can do it all for us? And if the private sector largely takes over that which traditionally we have expected to be delivered by the public sector, what will the access be like, what will be the price we pay for it, what will we have lost?

Media History Digital Library

I don’t think our national libraries and archives are going to disappear, and I think access is only going to increase and to be fabulous, though we will have to pay more for it than has been the case up until now. I do think that new kinds of institutional-like sites will emerge, however, which could supplant the work of some of the traditional institutions. The Media History Digital Library, for example, a non-profit initiative which is digitising extensive numbers of classic media periodicals that are in the public domain; or even the humble Bioscope, if it wants to become a focal point for the discovery of early film research resources. But how long will the Media History Digital Library last? Will I get bored of The Bioscope tomorrow and go off and do something else instead? The web world feels so impermanent, like it has been built on a whim. The web world feels so impermanent, like it has been built on a whim. The web is not going to disappear. It is where we now discover, interpret, re-use and share our researches. It is where early cinema belongs. But we’ll never be able to be completely confident that what we find online today will still be there tomorrow. And it is hard to build scholarship on such uncertainty.

I said that the value for me in early cinema is its connection with other subjects. This is what has been so good about the digital revolution, showing how early film fits in, not only with the world that created it, but with our world today. Indeed, at times I’m surprised we still have early cinema studies and it hasn’t evolved into something else, giving the associations and connections the digital environment provides. It’s why I so enjoyed Josh Yumibe‘s paper yesterday, which talked of the use of colour in our field, but threaded together an argument that brought in Hunger Games, Harry Smith, Loie Fuller, Scriabin, Kandinsky and D.W. Griffith, making early film concerns timeless and relevant.

As an expression of this, and as sort of tribute to Yumibe’s paper, I’ll finish off with a video which I posted on The Bioscope last Christmas, when not many people saw it, so here’s a chance to do so again. It brings together our world and their world in a witty and thought-provoking fashion, and demonstrates for me that the digital revolution has been, more than anything else, such fun.

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