Media History Digital Library

The Media History Digital Library, of which you will have read much if you are a regular here, now has a proper website. The MHDL is a non-profit initiative established by film archivist and historian David Pierce to digitise classic film and media-related journals and directories that are in the public domain, making them freely available for public access online. The journals come from variety of personal and institutional collections, with the donors including Robert S. Birchard, Eileen Bowser, Dino Everett, Richard Koszarski, Bruce Long, Nancy Goldman/Pacific Film Archive Library and Film Study Center, David Pierce, Rick Prelinger and Karl Thiede. Pierce is the director of the MHDL, Eric Hoyt of the School of Cinematic Arts, University of Southern California the Digitization Co-ordinator, and Wendy Hagenmaier of University of Texas Information School the Digital Archivist. All scanning and hosting is undertaken by the Internet Archive.

There are already over 200,000 pages digitised, and much more to follow. The journals for which there are extensive runs available are:

Business Screen (1938-1973)
The Film Daily (1918-1936)
International Photographer (1929-1941)
Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers (1930-1949)
Journal of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (1950-1954)
The Educational Screen (1922-1962)
Moving Picture World (1912-1918)
Photoplay (1917-1940)
Radio Age: Research, Manufacturing, Communications, Broadcasting, Television (1942-1957)
Radio Broadcast (1922-1930)

while those for which there are select holdings, and the directories available, are:

Educational Film Magazine (1920-1922)
Exhibitors Trade Review (1921-1922)
Film Spectator (1928)
Harrison’s Reports (1948)
Hollywood Reporter (1934)
Hollywood Reporter Production Encyclopedia (1948-1952)
Home Movies & Home Talkies (1932-1934)
International Motion Picture Almanac (1938)
Kinematograph Year Book (1931-1954)
Motion Picture Classic (1920)
Motion Picture Daily (1931-1934)
Motion Picture News Blue Book (1930)
Motion Picture News Booking Guide (1929)
Motion Picture Story Magazine (1913)
Motion Picture Studio Directory and Trade Annual (1921)
Motography (1915)
Non-Theatrical Film Catalogues (1936)
Picture Stories Magazine (1914-1915)
See and Hear: The Journal on Audio-Visual Learning (1945-1953)
Television Programming Catalogues (1957)
The Film Daily Year Book of Motion Pictures (1923-1963)
The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science: thee Motion Picture in Its Economic and Social Aspects (1926)
The Film Daily Presents the Product Guide and Director’s Annual (1937)
The Motion Picture Almanac (1929)
The Optical Lantern and Cinematograph Journal (1904-1905)
The World Film Encyclopedia (1933)
Who’s Who on the Screen (1920)

Many of these we have already described and championed at the Bioscope, and there’s no need to go through the details once again. The new website describes the collections, admirably, most helpfully dividing them up into curated section with useful background histories, under the themes of Hollywood Studio System Collection (1918-1948), Fan Magazines (1914-1940), Early Cinema Collection (1904-1918), Year Book Collection (1922-1963), Broadcasting Collection (1922-1957), Non-Theatrical Film Collection (1920-1973) and Technical Journals Collection (1929-1954).

This is not just a website to promote the existence of the project, but a properly functioning online library in itself. It presents the works and their contexts. There is a particularly informative and well-illustrated blog, written by Pierce, focussing on aspects of the collections; a forum awaiting new members, FAQs, a promised links section, and an invitation to asist in sponsoring further digitisation. A $1,000 contribution will support the scanning of 10,000 magazine pages, which is around a year for most of these publications. Among the titles awaiting sponsorship are The Film Daily, Motion Picture Daily, Motion Picture Herald, Radio Daily, Cine-Mundial, Broadcasting, Exhibitors Trade Review, Motion Picture News, Moving Picture World and The Hollywood Reporter. Some of these have been particually digitised, as indicated, but the full run remains to be completed.

More is promised from the site, aside from further digitised content. They intend to develop an Advanced Search to allow customisable searvches across multiple publications, volumes and years, which is going to be a huge boon to researchers. More on that when it appears. Meanwhile, individual journals and volumes are already word-searchable.

As Pierce’s blog shows, there is huge quantity of precious information to be mined. The Media History Digital Library represents a real tipping point for film research. We’ve gone beyond the point when it was quite fun to find a few texts available online, to supplement our visits to research libraries and perusing through microfilms. This is the new research library. This is where the bread-and-butter research documentation upon which we all depend is going to be found from now on. This is where we will now make our discoveries, and new kinds of discoveries too, as online research tools leads to new forms of analysis, new associations, and new conclusions. And we’ve only just started.

JSTOR opens up

Promo video for JSTOR’s Early Journal Content

Anyone who has gone searching for scholarly articles on the web will be aware of JSTOR. Type in just about any journal name, or look up any research subject, and sure enough there will be a link to an article held by this giantic American digital library. And if you do not belong to an institution that subscribes to JSTOR, you then end up banging your head against the desk because you, as an ‘unaffiliated scholar’, are not permiited access. So near and yet so far.

Well, in the continuing spirit of web altriusm (see yesterday’s post on Project Gutenberg) JSTOR has announced that it is going to make all of its journal content published prior to 1923 in the United States (the date before which all works published in the USA are held to be in the public domain) and prior to 1870 elsewhere in the world (a reasonable assumption based on the calculation of 70 years after the death of the author for a creative work in European law) freely available to anyone, anywhere. This represents 500,000 articles from 220 journals, or around 6% of the entire JSTOR collection.

JSTOR has not converted all of these journals to free access yet, but gradually the Early Journal Content offering will expand, with records marked by a green icon with the message “You have access to this content” and a box that states ‘free’. To search across the freely-available content, JSTOR provides an advance search page already set up for you, here. I’ve added this to Resources in the Bioscope’s right-hand column of links.

You can browse a full listing of JSTOR’s 2,270 journals (so far) here or browse by discipline here. Of course, they didn’t have anything called ‘film studies’ prior to 1923, so it will require some lateral searching, but to give an indication of the possibilities, I typed in our regular test search term ‘kinetoscope’ on JSTOR’s simple search page. There are 436 hits, but if I then click on “only content I can access” I get 47 open access records. The first five, eaching containing a mention of the word ‘kinetoscope’ somewhere in the text, are:

  • Chas. S. Slichter, ‘The Mechanics of Slow Motions’, Science, New Series, Vol. 11, No. 275 (Apr. 6, 1900), pp. 535-536
  • George Parsons Lathrop,’Stage Scenery and the Vitascope’, The North American Review, Vol. 163, No. 478 (Sep., 1896), pp. 377-381
  • G.A. Miller, ‘A Popular Account of Some New Fields of Thought in Mathematics’, Science, New Series, Vol. 11, No. 275 (Apr. 6, 1900), pp. 528-535
  • Henry Alfred Todd, ‘A Card Catalogue of Scientific Literature’, Science, New Series, Vol. 1, No. 11 (Mar. 15, 1895), pp. 297-299
  • Theodore Purdy, Reginald Cleveland Coxe,’The Wildness of the Waves’, The Monthly Illustrator, Vol. 5, No. 16 (Aug., 1895), pp. 183-186

A similar search strategy for ‘cinematograph’ yields 152 results, for ‘kinematograph’ 63 results, and for ‘bioscope’ 12.

It should be pointed out that JSTOR does have some free content from contemporary journals. For instance, in searching under ‘cinematograph’ I found an essay by Hannah Landecker, ‘Microcinematography and the History of Science and Film’, Isis, Vol. 97, No. 1 (March 2006), pp. 121-132. If you adjust the ‘sort by’ option to ‘newest to oldest’ you will get these occasional free modern articles appear at the top of your list of hits. You can also narrow down results to articles containing images, though do note that your average scholarly journal in the pre-1923 era didn’t go in for illustrations all that much.

All in all, this is a huge boon for the independent researcher, whether they be looking for silent film themes or any other topic of passing interest. Go explore.

In praise of Project Gutenberg

The sad news was reported last week of the death of Michael Hart, the founder of Project Gutenberg. Where the original Johannes Gutenberg, it is argued, manufactured the first printed book, Michael Hart invented the e-book. In 1971 he first typed out the Declaration of Independence on his university’s mainframe computer, and so began one of the world wide web’s greatest creations, a couple of decades before the web itself existed. Hart had created the electronic form of a printed text, but much more than that he saw the potential of creating a vast repository of freely-available texts, open to all.

His was an invention not only made for the Internet, but one which in a profound way helped inspire its ideals. One of the first things anyone learned about once they had logged on in those pioneering mid-1990s days was that there was this wonderful, altruistic project to make available the world’s public domain texts. Nor was it just one man with a keyboard, but rather a growing band of volunteers were giving up their time to type, proof-read, check OCR and present texts to the rest of the world simply because it was a noble thing to do. This, we learned, was what the Internet and the world wide web were all about – knowledge freely shared by all.

Many others have followed where Hart led, with the Internet Archive making available many of the same texts, Google now digitising out-of-copyright texts on a gigantic scale, and Amazon working hard to overturn centuries of reading practice with the Kindle e-book reader. But Project Gutenberg ploughs on, now with 36,000 books available, plus tens of thousands more through its affailiate organisations. Here at the Bioscope we have from time to time noted important texts in our field which have been made available by Gutenberg; they are described in the Bioscope Library. Below is a list of these and some of the other silent film-related books available on Project Gutenberg. The best thing you can do, by way of tribute to Hart’s great work, is to download and read at least one.

  • ‘Victor Appleton’, The Moving Picture Boys on the War Front (1918)
    One of a series of children’s adventure stories featuring the daring exploits of cameramen, a number of which feature on Gutenberg.
  • J. Berg Esenwein and Arthur Leeds, Writing the Photoplay (1919) [orig. 1913]
    A standard guide to writing a screenplay.
  • Frank Lewis Dyer and Thomas Commerford Martin, Edison: His Life and Inventions (1929)
    Early biography of the inventor of the Kinetoscope.
  • Arnold Fredericks [Frederic Arnold Kummer], The Film of Fear (1917)
    Thriller novel with a film background.
  • Vachel Lindsay, The Art of the Moving Picture (1915) [1922 revision]
    Classic, poetical study of the motion picture as an art form.
  • Geoffrey H. Malins, How I Filmed the War (1920)
    Classic account of an official cinematographer’s experiences of filming in the First World War.
  • Brander Matthews, ‘The Kinetoscope of Time’ in Tales of Fantasy and Fact (1896)
    Book of short stories with hauting tale inspired by the Kinetoscope.
  • Hugo Münsterberg, The Photoplay: A Psychological Study (1916)
    Generally considered the first serious work of film theory.
  • E. Phillips Oppenheim, The Cinema Murder (1917)
    British detective story with an American motion picture background.
  • Luigi Pirandello, Shoot! (si gira) (1927) [orig. 1915] [from Project Gutenberg Australia]
    Pirandello’s satirical novel about a cinematographer who is also an absurdist writer.
  • Jose Maria Rivera, Cinematografo (1920)
    A play (written in Tagalog) about the popularity of cinema in Filipino society.
  • Harry Leon Wilson, Merton of the Movies (1919)
    Celebrated comic novel about a terrible movie actor who is cast for laughs while he thinks he is playing in straight drama.

Thank you Michael Hart and all the volunteers at Project Gutenberg.

Triangle Film Corporation

The House Built upon Sand (1916), with Lillian Gish and Roy Stewart, from La Triangle (1915-1919): Archives, recherche et histoire du cinéma

Here’s a couple of websites to bring to your attention, each dedicated in one way or another to the Triangle Film Corporation. Triangle was formed in 1915 following a parting of the ways between the brothers Harry and Roy Aitken and other board members at the Mutual Film Corporation. Harry Aitken formed the Triangle Film Corporation in July 1915 with the plan of releasing the films of three prominent producers: D.W. Griffith, Thomas Ince and Mack Sennett. For three years it was a considerable force in American film production before it was dissolved, brought down in part by the huge costs of Intolerance – ironically enough, given that it was formed on a tide of optimism and finance that followed the great success of The Birth of a Nation.

The first site is The Harry & Roy Aitken Collection, created by the Wisconsin Center for Film & Theater Research, Madison. The WCFTR holds the papers of the Aitken brothers, comprising scripts, photos, promotional materials, company ledgers, legal records, and both personal and business correspondence. The site exhibits documents from one part of the collection, the Scripts and Scenarios series, using selected digitised documents to illustrate the great changes that took place in American film practice in the 1910s.

From the continuity script for Love of Justice? (working title The Woman of It) (1917)

The site comprises a timeline of developments in cinema in the 1910s; and a summary history of such developments, focussing on such key aspects as the arrival of feature films, the formation of exchanges, the distribution of features, and their exhibition. The central section is Continuity Script and the Rationalization of Film Production, which illustrates its historical thesis with digitised documents showing examples of Proof of Copyright, Detailed Scenario, Credits and Condensed Story, Locations, List of titles, Continuity Script Excerpt, Complete Picture Report and Budget Summary, all of them for Triangle releases. Another section, Changes in Film Style in the 1910s, demonstrates changes in lighting, staging, performance, editing and cinematography films at the start and end of the decade, with clips and stills as illustration. Finally there’s a case study based on The Clodhopper (1917), directed by Victor Scherzinger for Kay-Bee and released by Triangle, with a clip from the film and its matching continuity script.

From the gallery of photographs of Triangle productions on the Cinémathèque française site

Secondly, there’s the recently-launched La Triangle (1915-1919): Archives, recherche et histoire du cinéma, created by the Cinémathèque française. This brings together film clips (William S. Hart in The Desert Man, 1916 and Thomas Ince’s The Despoiler, 1915) with analyses of their restoration, photographs, digitised archival documents (including another contintuity script, for Lieutenant Danny, 1916, essays, catalogue records for relevant papers in Paris, Madison and Chicago, filmography, bibliography and weblinks.

Even if you don’t read French, the gallery of photographs alone is gorgeous to look at, and both sites are properly scholarly and just a little bit enthusiastic about their their subject, which is not just Triangle but the extraordinary way in which American film production stylistically and structurally evolved, matured and conquered the world over the period of the 1910s.

My thanks to Andrew Comiskey for alerting me to both sites.

European Film Gateway

Carl Dreyer’s Der Var Engang (1922), available in extract form via the European Film Gateway

And so, after reporting for the past two days on a symposium on film archives in the digital age held to mark the launch of the European Film Gateway, it’s time to introduce the Gateway itself.

The European Film Gateway, or EFG, is a European Union-funded intiative which aims to provide a gateway to European film heritage in digital form. The EFG doesn’t hold any such digital content itself, nor has it paid for for any films or other artefacts to be digitised to serve the EFG. It simply points to content that is already out there, on the websites of individual archives, bringing scattered information into one place for the benefit of you and me.

There are sixteen contributing archives (along with other partners), though fourteen are currently listed on the site: Cinecittà Luce (Rome), Cinemateca Portuguesa – Museu do Cinema (Lisbon), Det Danske Filminstitut (Copenhagen), Deutsches Filminstitut – DIF e.V. (Frankfurt), EYE Film Instituut Nederland (Amsterdam), Filmarchiv Austria (Vienna), Kansallinen audiovisuaalinen arkisto (Helsinki), La Cinémathèque française (Paris), Lichtspiel – Kinemathek Bern (Berne), Lietuvos Centrinis Valstybės Archyvas (Vilnius), Magyar Nemzeti Filmarchívum (Budapest), Národní filmový archiv (Prague), Nasjonalbiblioteket (Oslo), Tainiothiki tis Ellados (Athens). Not quite every member state of the European Union is represented, and the UK is conspicuous by its absence, though I understand that the Imperial War Museum will be contributing at a further stage in the EFG’s development. The leading contributors so far are Italy’s Archivio Luce, the Danish Film Archive, and the Deutsches Filminstitut.

What you get is, as of this moment, access to 391,229 digital objects, compising 23,390 videos, 357,452 images and 10,387 texts. Films are primarily non-fiction (newsreels, documentaries etc), but some fiction films can be found; the extensive range of images covers a extensive range of cinema history (most names that I typed in brought up something); and the documents include newspaper cuttings, scripts, censorship records, digitised books and so on.

Searching is a bit on the basic side. There is no advance search option, so there is no way that I’ve been able to discover that lets you search every film dating before 1930, for example, or all the documents from one particular archive. However, once you have searched for something, there are opportunities to refine your search by archive, medium, date period, or language, so it’s best to search for something, then explore the records thereafter. Frustratingly there is no option to refine searches by genre (say if you wanted to find fiction films only).

However, you can play a trick on the Gateway by searching for “a”, which brings up just about every record. Refining this by film as medium and dates 1900-1929 reveals that there are at least 687 films from the silent period available to view. These include 524 from Det Danske Filminstitut, 91 from Luce, 38 from Tainiothiki tis Ellados, 20 from Filmarchiv Austria, 12 from Národní filmový archiv, and 2 from Lichtspiel – Kinemathek Bern. All of these films can be found on their respective archives’ websites, some in extract form only. Do note that, though most of the site in English, you will be confronted with Greek, Czech or other foreign language only sections of the site.

Search results on the EFG for ‘Asta Nielsen’

Many of the films and other digital objects are gathered in to collections, which usefully you are allowed to browse. Here are the descriptions from the EFG of some of the collections that relate to our area of silent film:

Cinecittà Luce: Documentary and Short Film Collection 1920-1990
3,000 items from a unique collection of cinematographic non-fiction and fiction works, since the silent film era to our days, black and white and colored, short and long, featuring titles of different topics from history to culture, by a myriad of directors, including, among them the first works of great masters like Rossellini, Antonioni, Comencini, De Seta, and other famous names of Italian filmmaking.

Det Danske Filminstitut: Early Documentary and Fiction Films and Trailers
The collection of the Danish Film Institute available on EFG contains a number of early documentary films, which display the life and look of the Danish society in the period of 1906 to 1940. Among the 300 films are straight depictions of modern production equipment and trade, as well as more propagandistic titles and news items. The over 50 early fiction films available are a raw collection of short films that give an impression of what early audiences were entertained by. In addition, around 700 teaser previews of the films available in the Danish Film Institute’s educational distribution can be found on EFG. The latter collection contains current films that are chosen mainly for their value in education and general audience informative qualities.

Det Danske Filminstitut: The Films by Cinema Pioneer Peter Elfelt
The 77 films by Danish cinema pioneer Peter Elfelt (1866-1931) are not only interesting from a cinematic point of view but they are also unique contemporary documents. As royal court photographer, Elfelt had access to the most important people and events at his time, which is reflected by his films, focusing on Denmark’s high society.

Deutsches Filminstitut: Costume and Set Designers’ Collections
More than 200 set designs and 900 film costume designs, sketches and notes by distinguished German (film) architects Otto Hunte, Walter Reimann and Hans Poelzig and costume designers such as Ali Hubert, Helga Kischkat-Reuter and Irms Pauli can now be accessed via the EFG. Many of the design sketches represent milestones in their field, e.g. the set designs for “Metropolis” (1925/26) or “Der Golem wie er in die Welt kam” (1920).

La Cinémathèque française: Magic Lantern Slides Collection
The Cinémathèque française’s collection of magic lantern slides illustrates the pre-cinema era and contains some of the finest and most well-preserved slides still in existence. A selection of around 1,500 of these hand-painted and photographic unique artworks from France, Great Britain, Germany and the USA covering the 18th century until the 1920s is available on EFG.

La Cinémathèque française: Photos of the Triangle Film Corporation
The Triangle Film Corporation existed from 1915 to 1918. Employing directors such as D.W. Griffiths, Thomas Ince and Mack Sennet it was on of the largest American production companies at its time. By means of around 1,400 photos of the John E. Allen – Triangle Collection, the history of the company can be retraced.

La Cinémathèque française: The Digital Library Collection
La Cinémathèque française has a precious book collection which retraces the long adventure of the prehistory of the cinema and photographic and film techniques. The approximately 280 books of this collection date back to the 17th century and can be found on EFG.

La Cinémathèque française: The Étienne-Jules Marey Collection
The scientist Étienne-Jules Marey (1830 – 1904) used photographic methods to study the movement of human and animal throughout his life. La cinémathèque offers access to around 400 photos from the estate of Étienne-Jules Marey via EFG.

La Cinémathèque française: The Muybridge Collection
With the serialisation of photos Eadward Muybridge was one of the first who created the impression of moving images. EFG gives access to about 700 images that emanate from the estate of Muybridge.

Magyar Nemzeti Filmarchívum: Photo Collection
The selection of around 1,000 film stills covers the period from the beginnings of Hungarian cinema to 1947 and includes early films of world famous directors such as Alexander Korda and Michael Curtiz.

Magyar Nemzeti Filmarchívum: Poster Collection
Magyar Nemzeti Filmarchívum contributes aprox. 1,200 film posters, which provide an overview of the Hungarian poster art from the beginnings of Hungarian cinema in 1900 to the 1990s.

Národní filmový archiv: Documentary and Feature Films
The National Czech Film Archive makes eight feature films from the Czech silent film era from 1898 to 1920 available via EFG. An overview of the history of the Czech documentary film provides the collection “Czech Documentary Films”. Up to 200 films from 1898 to 1928 can be viewed on EFG.

Nasjonalbiblioteket: Selected Films
For EFG the Nasjonalbiblioteket gives access to a selection of approx. 350 film works, many of them representing Norwegian cinema from 1900 to 1935. The collection also includes historic advertising films from the 1920s to the 1950s as well as documentary films about Oslo.

Not every film included on the EFG falls into one of these collections (for example, the coy early sex films of Austrian production company Saturn), and as is so often the case with these sorts of resources it helps if you know what you are looking for is going to be there somewhere, because the searching tools don’t always help you completely. But it must be pointed out that the EFG is in a beta phase, with plenty of bugs let to be ironed out. Better functionality, and more content (including some arriving in August) are promised.

The EFG is essentially a feeder site for the European digital library concept, Europeana, previously written about on the Bioscope. There the films and film-related content will be searchable alongside many other kinds of digital objects (the EFG content does not appear to be on Europeana as yet). The EFG has a sister project, EU Screen, which is doing the same job for European television content (no UK content again – are we trying to tell them something?).

The European Film Gateway represents only a tiny fraction of European moving image content, digital or otherwise, and no one can say how it will develop. But it has established a structure for encompassing moving image data from very varied film archive catalogues, through which they hope to be able to point to more and more content, if more archives will take up its all to contribute. And Europeana will certainly continue, gradually biding its time, persuading more and more libraries and archives that it is their European duty to supply ever more content to the giant digital soup. Lucky us.

There is, by the way, a separate European Film Gateway project site, which has more background information on the project itself.

Motion picture studio directories

Actress Hope Hampton, from the frontispiece to the Motion Picture Studio Directory and Trade Annual for 1921

As we have noted before now, the plethora of online resources for family history that exist can be a particularly useful aid for early film research. Now the leading genealogy web service, Ancestry, has returned the compliment by making two American motion picture directories available on its site, for searching by those who subscribe to its services. The two volumess are the Motion Picture Studio Directory and Trade Annual for 1919 and 1921, which Ancestry has converted into database form, with this opening description:

Two directories to the actors, directors, producers, and technicians of the motion picture industry for the years 1919 and 1921 are contained in this database. Each directory has a biographical section with information about the listed individuals such as their name, birth date and place, a brief career bio sometimes including educational history, a physical description (for the actors) or special skills description (for production crew), and membership in clubs, unions, or other organizations. Many entries include addresses and some photographic portraits are featured. All are listed in an index at the back of each directory.

Section divisions for the directories are as follows: actors, actresses, child parts, directors, assistant directors, scenario editors and writers, cinematographers, studio managers, publicity men, laboratory and property men, and film cutters. The actors’ and actress’ sections are further sub-divided into leads, ingénues, characters, comedians, and heavies (villains). Biographical entries, besides the above listed information, also note films the individual has worked on and other important or relevant experience such as the bio of cinematographer Herbert Oswald Carleton which specifically mentions his early career as a mechanic and inventor as well as his patented invention, the Duplex Printing Machine.

Each person entry on the Ancestry database comprises: Surname, Birth date and place, Career summary, Description of physical appearance (actors) or other skills (technicians and crew), and Membership in clubs or societies. This is very handy for those searching for names across Ancestry’s gigantic database of genealogical information who require all such information to be in one place. However, it should be noted that the Motion Picture Studio Directory and Trade Annual for 1921 is freely availably online in word-searchable form from the Internet Archive, which also makes available Charles Donald Fox and Milton Silver’s Who’s Who on the Screen (1920) which the Bioscope has introduced before now and portraits with text from which are reproduced on the Bioscope’s Flickr site.

Sample page from the 1921 Motion Picture Studio Directory and Trade Annual

So it’s always worth checking twice with these things, and you can find summaries of Who’s Who on the Screen and now the Motion Picture Studio Directory and Trade Annual for 1921 in the ever-growing Bioscope Library.

Searching the BUFVC

We are mentioning with increasing frequency the existence of federated databases; that is, databases of databases, which allow you to search across multiple databases through a single search option. Sometimes they get called gateways or portals, but they are essentially all doing the same thing. We have already mentioned Connected Histories, JISC MediaHub, Canadiana and Europeana. There are others of major status in the pipeline which we will be covering at the appropriate time. But today we are looking at the BUFVC federated search environment aka All BUFVC.

The British Universities Film & Video Council is a small organisation that achieves big things. It exists to support the use of moving images and sound in UK higher education, and does so chiefly through a combination of information, online databases and a television and radio off-air recording service for educational users. Snappily known as the BUFVC, it used to employ your scribe not so long ago, so this may not be an entirely dispassionate review, but they do damn fine work with all the right principles – and this is a damn fine resource that they have created.

The federated search environment (a terrible phrase, friends) brings together nine databases and 13 million records. The databases include TRILT (a huge database of programme information on all UK TV and radio since 2001 and further records back to 1995), a database of some 30,000 educational titles aailable on DVD and tape, News on Screen (data on 180,000 British newsreels and cinemagazines from 1910 onwards), Shakespeare on Film, Television and Radio (7,000 records), TVTiP (television listings for the UK’s ITV channel 1955-1985), This Week (records for the ITV documentary series 1956-1982), and three independent local radio databases with associated recordings. As the publicity blurb puts it:

The search environment will transform moving image and sound resource discovery by replacing the need for researchers to locate databases and collections through multiple channels. It will enable creative discovery of content by opening up collections and connecting users with resources they were not previously aware of.

Before you get too excited, not all of this is accessible to everyone. Someone of the resources have been paid for with UK higher education monies and are accessible via password to UK HE institutions only, while TRILT is only available to BUFVC members, apart from the two most recent weeks’ programme data. Other records provide catalogue data, and then link to the film or sound recordings themselves, but you have to be in the UK HE club to access those. But that’s the BUFVC’s business to serve UK universities, and it’s highly commendable that they can still make so much of the catalogue data, and a great many digitised documents, available to all.

So there is a huge amount to discover for everyone. And here it does just about everything right that you would want to see from such a resource. Enter any search term and and result come up with title, short descriptions and some cheery icons which let you know database they come from, what genre type (e.g. radio, newsreel), what medium (e.g. film, sound) and whether any digital content is available online (subject to your particularl status). Individual records provide further information, depending on the nature of the original database. You can used the Advanced Search to refine searches by date, date range, medium, collection, availability, and genre. You can rate records, trace your preious searches, order search results by relevance, date or title, and results can be exported in XML format, as text or in citation format. There is first-rate faceting (i.e. letting you know how many of your search results break down into particular categories, and it even offers serendipitious related searches. What fun.

Search results for ‘charlie chaplin’

So what is there for the silent film researcher? The easiest thing to do is to used the adanced search and narrow search results to 1896-1929. You’ll find some 35,000 newsreel records and 500 Shakespeare records. The former are records of almost every British newsreel and film magazine released over that period, covering a huge variety of social and political stories as well as many items specifically relating to cinema subjects (17 newsreels on Chaplin, 20 for Pickford, 14 for Fairbanks). The BUFVC doesn’t hold the films, but the records will tell you who does (and link you to online copies including the freely-available titles held by British Pathe). The Shakespeare records are (hopefully) every title from the silent era relating to the Bard, a hugely useful resurce in itself, again with information on where extant copies may be found. But take away the date limiters and there is more to be found, among TV and radio programmes and DVD releases. 129 search results for Chaplin overall should give you an idea of the range.

The BUFVC federated search environment (it’s still a dreadful name, but I understand the idea is to have it appear on their front page so that the search facility effectively beomes the BUFVC online) is the result of a collaborative project between the BUFVC and Royal Holloway, University of London, and was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. It was funded as part of something called the Digital Equipment and Database enhancement for Impact programme, and it is designed to create impact. Nine databases are too many to be offering separately – users will know about one or two, but ignore the others. They won’t be able to ignore this. It also establishes a platform onto which other databases could be added in time, enriching discovery all the more.

Go explore.

Lowell and Lawrence

You may recall that last year I was involved with Neil Brand in a recreation of Lowell Thomas’ celebrated multimedia show, With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia, which in 1919-20 did so much to create the romantic idea of Lawrence of Arabia. On the Bioscope the research led to a detailed post on T.E. Lawrence and his life in film.

The show had one barebones presentation at the British Silent Film Festival before it was decided not to take the project any further. But there are those with other ideas, and one of them is Rick Moulton, an American documentary filmmaker with a particular interest in the work of Lowell Thomas and his media presentations. Moulton and Clio History have now produced a website, Lowell Thomas and Lawrence of Arabia: Making a Legend, Creating History.

It’s a handsomely produced site which tells the romantic tales both of T.E. Lawrence and of Lowell Thomas himself, the American journalist who went out to the Middle East in search of a heroic figure to sell the idea of the war to an American audience, and who succeeded in his quest beyond his wildest dreams. Billed as an exhibition, the site covers Thomas as journalist, T.E. Lawrence as a legend on the making, the attack on Akaba, Lawrence at the Paris Peace conference in 1919, the success of the 1919-20 show, Lawrence at the Cairo conference (where the Middle East was carved up and parceled out), the 1962 David Lean film, and the legacies of both Lawrence and Thomas. The site has just the one video clip and some audio, but it is rich in images and supporting documents, and each section of the site has several sub-pages – there is plenty to explore in what is a site created in the spirit of Lowell Thomas himself.

Lowell Thomas ready to film the pyramids from the air (a hand-coloured photograph from the time)

Lowell Thomas (1892-1981) was an American journalist who gained nationwide fame as a Movietone newsreel commentator, as co-founder of Cinerama, and as a radio and television broadcaster. He started out as a print journalist and adventurer, and it was a mixture of personal experience and drive that in 1917 got Thomas a commission to seek out material that would demonstrate to the American people why it was important to support the First World War. He found little of what he felt to be suitable material on the Western Front, so with British official support he went to the Middle East, where Jerusalem was expected to fall to British troops under General Edmund Allenby.

It was when he was in Jersualem (which fell to Allenby in December 1917) that Thomas came across the extraordinary figure of Colonel T.E. Lawrence, a British officer who was helping encourage an Arab revolt by all manner of unconventional means, including the wearing of Arab clothing. Thomas and his camera operator Harry Chase followed Lawrence for just a couple of days, taking both photographs and motion pictures. By this time, the purpose of Thomas’ expedition was really redundant, since there was no need to sell the idea of the war to American audiences any more, but once the war was over he organised his material into a form in which he could sell it as public entertainment.

Lowell Thomas (to the left of the screen) presenting With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia to a London audience

Thomas originally presented an amalgam of all his war material in New York in March 1919, where he found audiences responded most strongly to the Middle Eastern material. He moved to Britain with a show that was originally called With Allenby in Plaestine, including the Capture of Jerusalem and the Liberation of Holy Arabia. It was a truly multimedia show which Thomas billed as a ‘travelogue’ and presented himself (with Chase as projectionist). It combined live narration with music, lighting, lantern slides and film in a highly complex but slick presentation. Allenby was the great military hero, but it was the story of the incomparably romantic T.E. Lawrence, or Lawrence of Arabia as Thomas dubbed him, that captured the public imagination. Lawrence and Chase had spent little time with Lawrence himself, and had little substantial material to show (just a couple of film sequences taken by Chase showed Lawrence), but it was how Thomas told the tale that made the legend.

The show premiered at the Royal Opera House in August 1919. Retitled With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia, it became a huge hit, tapping into an audience thirst for heroism away from the carnage of the Western front. The Lawrence tale seemed like a clean triumph replete with the values of another, more romantic age. Another major factor in the show’s appeal was how Thomas and Chase brought together word, image and music in a highly polished style we would now probably call televisual. A million people saw it during its London run; four million around the world. It made Lawrence’s name, for good or ill, establishing a legend that he then tried to hide away from for the rest of his life. Thomas followed up the show with his 1924 book Lawrence of Arabia. He produced other travelogues based on further overseas adventures, and looked for other such modern-day heroes to match the success he had found with Lawrence (for example, the adventurer, aviator and polar filmmaker Hubert Wilkins) but never again did Thomas find so perfect a subject. The 1962 feature film Lawrence of Arabia (still in thrall to romance created by Thomas, by way of Lawence’s own self-dramatisation) includes the Lowell Thomas-like figure Jackson Bentley, played by Arthur Kennedy.

Promotional video for the Lowell Thomas and Lawrence of Arabia: Making a Legend, Creating History site

It was an interesting experience trying to recreate the Lawrence part of the show at the British Silent Film Festival last year. Admittedly we only had a narrator, and actor, a PowerPoint slide show and video clips, whereas Thomas’ original show played in an opera house and featured an orchestra and a prologue with oriental dancers writhing before a backdrop of the pyramids. I felt that, though the show worked reasonably well as an entertainment, the script belonged to another age and was historically misleading. Others, however, still hold to the dream of remaking the show in all of its multimedia glory, and Rick Moulton is one of them. The Lowell Thomas and Lawrence of Arabia: Making a Legend, Creating History exhibition site is but a stepping stone to a document on Thomas and Lawrence and hopefully one day that recreation of at least the Lawrence part of the show (Allenby’s star doesn’t shine quite so brightly these days). We have the films, we have the images, we have the script, the music shouldn’t be a problem. But recreating the special presence of Lowell Thomas and still more an audience war-weary yet anxious for unsullied heroes may be that much harder to achieve.

There is a detailed account of the reception of Lowell Thomas’ travelogue in London on T.E. Lawrence biographer Jeremy Wilson’s site.


Google Map showing locations of films made in the early 1900s by R.W. Paul in the Muswell Hill and New Southgate area, produced by the Cine-Tourist

My favourite website of the moment is the Cine-Tourist. The site has been created by Roland-François Lack of University College London as a home for his studies into cinema and place. It’s a model example of how to use the Web as a home for research in forms to which the Web is best suited.

The Cine-Tourist, as Lack bills himself, is interested how films record and depend upon place, both literally and metaphorically. He demonstrates the interrelationships in a number of engrossing ways. For example, his site has sections on cities: that on Paris has 63 frame grabs from Jacques Rivette’s Paris s’en va (1981), identifying the specific locations; that on London has a series of frame grabs rather playfully showing maps that appear in films depicting police stations. That all sounds rather little bit trainspotter-ish, but in practice pinpointing the specifics of place somehow deepens the sense of depth in a film, in the way that it always leads our imagination away from the literal.

This is made clearer in the Cine-Tourist’s blog, The Daily Map, which posts daily frame grabs from a wide range of films, each showing a map significantly positioned in the background, often with an engrossing quotation underneath, from studies of image, place and cultural history. Several of the examples so far are from silent films, as in this frame still from Jean Epstein’s La chute de la Maison Usher (1928):

‘The face is a map’: frame still from La chute de la Maison Usher (1928)

There are other elements to the site, including thoughts on methodologies, a biographical account of his local cinemas, links and a helpful bibliography of “books and essays that read maps in films or films through maps or films as maps …” But I want to draw particular attention to the section Local filmmaker: local film subjects. The Cine-Tourist lives in the Muswell Hill area of London, and one hundred years ago the area was home and workspace for British pioneer filmmaker Robert W. Paul.

Paul lived and maintained a studio and film laboratories in the Muwsell Hill and New Southgate areas. The Cine-Tourist has photographed the intriguingly mundane buildings that were Paul’s homes in the area, but then has studied Paul’s films closely (both those extant and lost films nevertheless indentifiable to a degree through catalogues) and matched locations to film scenes. So far, this is much like the work done by John Bengtson at his Silent Locations blog (recently reported on by the Bioscope). The Cine-Tourist however goes further by subjecting the images to greater topographical and filmographical analysis, and by mapping the locations of some of Paul’s films of the 1900s onto Google Maps, as demonstrated at the top of this post. From this map you can go to the locations specific films, which you can additionally view on Street View or as a satellite view. Additional links take you to detailed information on Paul’s domestic and professional addresses, with further links to the London Project database on pre-First World War film businesses in London.

Robert Paul’s 1903 home ‘Malvern’, now the ‘Muswell Hill Food & Wine’,”the shop to which I go for last-minute, late-night supplies of wine and sundries” (the Cine-Tourist)

This isn’t just a piece of diverting local history. It links up the personal to the professional to the geographical to the Web. Lack begins with himself as London resident, or London traveller; traces his personal history of filmgoing and filmwatching in London (and other cities); documents this through the films in which people are themselves mapped in various ways; then brings all this together into a website which links out again to the greater world of film studies, area studies, and the co-ordinates of place in general. What it may all signify in the end, I couldn’t tell you exactly – but the journey is engrossing.

The Cine-Tourist is an example of an increasing trend in the scholarly study of the mysteries of place. Its inspiration goes back to the flâneur of 19th century Paris, the man in the crowd who was a part of the city yet by perambulating through it was somehow distanced from it, as Baudelaire described:

To be away from home and yet to find oneself everywhere at home, to be at the centre of the world, and yet remain hidden from the world.

The flâneur is a reader of the city through which he passes. Other inspirations for what has become a modern movement are Walter Benjamin’s Arcades project and the ‘situationist’ Guy Debord, who came up with the somewhat loose term ‘psychogeography’ often used to describe such preoccupations. Most recently there is the London writer Iain Sinclair, author of such richly allusive works as London Orbital (a tour of the M25 which circumnavigates London) and Lights out for the Territory, works to be found placed prominently in the London section of many a bookshop, doubtless bewildering the unsuspecting tourists who purchase them. Sinclair, like Debord, is also a filmmaker, and another member of the same ‘school’ is documentary filmmaker Patrick Keiller, whose 2007 exhibition placing images from early films onto the same locations today was covered by the Bioscope.

What is interesting is how such ramblings (literally so) have found their natural home on the Web; indeed are being encouraged by the Web, which by its very nature brings together that association of ideas that psychogeography seeks to achieve. Google Maps, Google Earth, Street View, OpenStreetMap (a free, editable world map), HistoryPin (mapping of people’s historical photos) and Geograph (a project inviting anyone to help document every square kilometre of the UK and Ireland with photographs) each encourage us to explore and share what we have explored.

London Sound Survey‘s mapping of sounds (the orange squares) from the London of today to the Booth maps of 1898, colour-coded to show levels of welath and poverty

Interestingly, many psychogeographical or semi-pyschogeographical sites are rather bad at using the Web. Among some of the better examples, check out Classic Cafes (London and seaside cafes), Derelict London (the strange poetry of abandoned corners of London), Urban Squares (city squares around the world), Mythogeography (“for walkers, artists who use walking in their art, students who are discovering and studying a world of resistant and aesthetic walking, anyone who is troubled by official guides to anywhere …”) and the excellent London Sound Survey (systematically mapping the city though its sounds).

For silent films, we are fortunate in having two outstanding examples of the use of mapping tools, though neither is strictly psychogeographical in intent. Going to the Show documents the experience of movies and moviegoing in North Carolina to the end of the silent film era, bringing together Sanborn fire insurance maps of the period and Google Maps; while Cinema Context documents cinema-going and films seen in the Netherlands, linking its database records to Google Maps and the Internet Movie Database. Both have been highly praised on these pages before now (see here and here). I shall be writing about Cinema Context again soon. For other such empirical studies of cinemas and their place, see the HOMER project website (though some of the links no longer work).

Roland-François Lack has another blog, The BlowUp moment, dedicated to frame stills showing the use of cameras in films, with a new image daily.

Go explore. Literally so.

The one-stop-shop

Midland Electric Theatre, Babbington Lane, Derby, from Picture the Past, available via JISC MediaHub

Another day, another federated database. The latest offering is JISC MediaHub, which is a bringing together of a number of digital multimedia resources, many of which have been made available individually to UK higher education users by the Joint Information Systems Committee, often under institutional subscription only. Edinburgh University’s EDINA are the people who have put it all together, though all of the original digitising, describing and contextualising has been done by other hands. The resources include Film and Sound Online, NewsFilm Online (previously reviewed by the Bioscope), Spoken Word, Getty, AP Archive and several more.

JISC MediaHub brings all these together in one searchable form, allowing you to refine searches by video, image or sound (the three types featured), and by restricted or unrestricted content – so some of the content is open to all. It is clear to use, though personally I find the design on the busy side and the way descriptions pop up to the side of records a bit off-putting. Further tools and features are promised with later releases. MediaHub began in 2005 as a portal project entitled Visual and Sound Materials and has take quite a while to get to this form. It is to be hoped that it achieves its aim of increasing scholarly use of audiovisual media by making it easier to find high value content all in one place, rather than a set of disparate services. Whether researchers need (or, let’s face it, deserve) to find everything handily in one place is a matter for debate, but that’s the way things are being pushed – so it’s not really up for debate at all. You have all the advantages of the one-stop-shop, and all the disadvantages of content taken out of its curated context (though MediaHub does point researchers back to the original source website).

So, what can we find for our area of silent films, either among the restricted content (if we’re in a subscribing UK higher education institution or have password access to some other sites) or unrestricted (the rest of you)? Well, there’s quite a lot. Under content restricted to educational users only, there is a significant number of films from the Imperial War Museum covering the First World War, including the feature films The Battle of the Somme, The Battle of the Ancre and the Advance of the Tanks, and The Battle of Arras, along with other documentary and propaganda films made by British official film outfits. There are also IWM film clips which are available to all included on another resource, the First World War Poetry Digital Archive.

There is a considerable amount of news footage from the ITN collection (NewsFilm Online, originally created by the British Universities Film & Video Council), which includes practically the entire surviving archive of the Gaumont Graphic silent newsreel (1911-1932), with its marvellously rich recod of life, events and manners over two decades. There are also silent films on medical subjects in the Wellcome Trust collection, including the renowed War Neuroses, on the treatment of shell-shock (see the earlier Bioscope post on this), and titles such as Frontal Rhinoplasty and Epidemic Encephalitis, which you tend not to find in standard silent filmographies.

MediaHub search results for ‘Ancre’, showing photographs and film clips from both restricted and open collections

Among the unrestricted content there is the Open Video Project, itself a collection of freely-available online video collections which include a number of early Edison productions (and reviewed previously on the Bioscope); and Culture Grid, a collection cultural objects from UK collections with many photographs that relate to cinema – particularly cinema buildings themselves (type in ‘cinematograph’, ‘bioscope’ or ‘electric theatre’ for some interesting results, such as the image at the top of this post).

There is much more on film outside of silent film. Among the restricted collections are the ETV collection of Soviet and left-wing films, social conscience documentaries and feature films from Amber Films, the Films of Scotland series of documentaries, clips from the Getty collection of stock footage, news footage from Associated Press, and films on archaeology, medicine, chemistry etc., with other collections under negotiation, notably the Royal Mail Film Classics collection (Night Mail and such like). Among the film content that is free to all there is ARKive (footage of endangered species).

All in all it’s a remarkable, if equally curious collection of stuff. There are hundreds of thousands of objects available (around 90,000 being film items), but the randomness of some of the collections gives a sense of lucky dip about the whole research process. You don’t know what you are going to find – and if you are looking for something specific you’re as likely to be disappointed as not – but what you do find is bound to intrigue, and hopefully to encourage scholars to come back for more. The great advantage for those in UK HE is that the restricted content is licensed for them to download and re-use, and that (I can tell you) has taken a lot of neogiating to achieve, and not a little expenditure as well.

For the rest of us, it’s a bit like peering in at the window of a toyshop when you haven’t got any pocket money. It would of course be so much better of all of this content was freely available to everyone, to do what they wanted with it in an entirely open fashion. But that’s not going to happen (yet), and much of this content has only been made available in this way because it can be restricted to educational users under careful licence conditions. So lucky you if you’re a UK student. Now go out and make use of it.