Elephant’s graveyard


I’m not sure why the Bioscope hasn’t written anything on the Hathi Trust before now. It is one of the largest repositories of digitised written content available, and with huge amounts of content relevant to silent film studies. Maybe it’s because the legality of the enterprise isn’t clear (the Author’s Guild and others have filed a lawsuit against it for copyright violation), yet much of the content is also available via the Internet Archive or Google Books, and it has an impressive list of American universities behind it.

The Hathi Trust (named after the Hindi word for elephant, hence the punning title to this post) is a catalogue and digital repository of digitised content from over sixty research libraries in the USA. It currently boasts 10,263,901 titles, including 5,422,520 books and 269,186 serials, 29% of which they say are in the public domain (in the USA). In other kinds of numbers, thats 3,592,365,350 pages, or 460 terabytes of digital files, or 121 miles of shelving, or 8,339 tons in weight (helpfully they provide a note explaning how this was calulated, basing it on “an average book having 350 pages, being 3/4 of an inch wide, containing 47 MB of information, and weighing 26 ounces”).

It’s a very clear, business-like and practical website. You can search in three ways – by catalogue record (seaching across titles, authors, publisher, year of publication etc.), by full text search (i.e. words within the texts themselves) or via ‘collections’ curated by users. Although every title listed on the database exists in digital form, copyright restrictions similar to those which constrain Google Books mean that though you can search by word across all of the text, only a proportion of the texts can be viewed as full text (presumably 29%). It is possible to narrow searches to only full text results.

As said, there is a subject search option, and if you type in ‘motion pictures’ you get 15,516 records, of which 455 are viewable in full text form. However, some spot-checking using other search terms shows that many relevant titles aren’t classified under ‘motion pictures’, so you are better off using the full-text search option.

So, using our regular test term of ‘kinetocope’, what do we get? A mightily impressive 8,619 results (i.e. books or serials that mention ‘kinetoscope’ somewhere), of which 3,512 are fully viewable. These include W.K-L. Dickson and Antonia Dickson’s History of the kinetograph, kinetoscope, & kinetophonograph (1895), Edwin George Lutz’s Animated cartoons; how they are made, their origin and development (1920), Maxwell Hite’s Lessons in how to become a successful moving picture machine operator (1908) and C. Francis Jenkins’ Animated pictures; an exposition of the historical development of chromophotography (1898).

Each full-text record is present in a ‘classic’ view which shows one page on the screen and allows you to scroll through page by page using arrow buttons, as well as zooming in or out and rotation tools. Other views on offer are scrolling, flipbook, thumbnails (handy for image-rich publications) and plain text. You can search for any word within the text, the results for which are given highlighted in a line or two of text, as in the example below taken from the unexpected source of Indian massacres and tales of the red skins: an authentic history of the American Indian from 1492 to the present time (1895). Clicking on the page number then takes you to the relevant page in the text.

Mention of the word ‘kinetoscope’ in Indian Massacres and Tales of the Red Skins (1895)

This is extraordinary stuff. On relatively quick inspection, I’ve found several key texts not available on the Internet Archive, for example Mrs D.W. Griffith’s (Linda Arvidson) When the Movies Were Young (1925) and Martin Quigley’s Magic shadows; the story of the origin of motion pictures (1948). There are many titles whose public domain status seems dubious (Ernest Lindgren’s The Art of the Film, for example, published in 1963 – though maybe the copyright wasn’t renewed in the USA), but then there are quite modern titles there presumably with the blessing of the publisher: Gregory A. Waller’s Main Street amusements: movies and commercial entertainment in a Southern city, 1896-1930 (1995), for example.

And it’s not just books. There are motion picture journals here, incuding titles not available on the Internet Archive. Bioscope reader Mirko Heinemann kindly brought the following editions of Moving Picture World to my attention, several of which are unique (digitally) to the Hathi Trust site:

These have all been added to the Bioscope’s list of silent film journals available online. There is a PDF download option provided, though in many cases it seems to be only a page at a time, unless the record specifies that the whole volume is available for download.

You can create your own collection to act as a research aide memoire or to assist others. For this you need to register with the University of Michigan, which is straightforward, select the texts under your theme, tag them, choose a title for your collection, and it gets added to the long list of collections previously created and browsable. There is already a list there for American silent film culture, listing sixty-one “Primary sources related to the history of American silent film”.

The Hathi Trust Digital Library is frankly a bit overwhelming. There’s so much there you hardly know where to start. On testing the site I felt like I need a more obscure subject to pursue (yes, there are some subjects out there more obscure than silent films) just so that I could have a manageable set of resources. I’m uncertain about its interpretation of fair use and public domain, but there are plenty of titles there for which you can search the full text but not view the full text, so legal proprietaries would seem to have been followed.

The Hathi Trust would appear to have created the optimum digital library, at least for text-based content. For advanced searching, it is ahead of the Internet Archive, with only its display tools not quite matching the IA’s excellent viewer. The limitations on downloading PDFs are a disappointment, but the ease of use, the relevance of results, and the sheer range of publications on offer (sometimes surprising, generally useful) make this essential for anyone engaged in silent film research. Moreover, as a coming together of the collections of a range of noteworthy collections, it represents what the digital library of the future means – not confined by the physical walls of any one insitution, but shared by many for the benefit of all, wherever they might be.