Reel Rot

A while ago I submitted an article to the Journal of Scandinavian Cinema as a kind of first report on the film heritage and web project around that I am in charge of. We have had some problems (to say the least) – and we have in fact launched a separate beta-site at The draft is consequently entitled, “Reel Rot—Remarks on a Failed Film Archival Project”. I guess the text now needs to pass a number of peer reviewers – still, the piece starts like this:

During late autumn 2012 the second major funding agency for humanistic research in Sweden, Riksbankens jubileumsfond, decided to fund an infrastructural project with the purpose to develop the site—a joint venture between the Swedish Film Institute and the National Library of Sweden devoted to (mainly) historical nonfiction film. The aim of the application was to work with four parallel work packages—cataloguing, coding, contextualization and communication—in accordance with two major purposes: adding new cinematic categories to the site, and implement updated Web-based functionalities with a distinct user perspective. The application, in short, set out to significantly transform the existing site into a cinematic platform that met new digital requirement and expectations.

More than two years later not a single sign of this infrastructural project is visible on the site Not even the edited (and CC-licensed) scholarly research volume, Skosmörja eller arkivdokument? (Jönsson and Snickars, 2012) is present—either as a downloadable PDF or simply as a metadata reference—remarkably so since the book formed the very basis of the entire project. In fact, up until now, this film project is a complete failure. No research functionalities are added, no new user interaction, no contextual material, no ways to comment or communicate. Nothing.

As the responsible scholar for this particular project, I am not writing this short subject article as defense or as an instance of rebutting evidence of some kind of accusation. On the contrary, I am fully aware that nothing has happened online—even if I have repeatedly argued that the site ought to be upgraded following the research plan. The purpose of the article is rather to ask myself what has gone wrong, what can be learned and what general insights film and media scholars can draw from this apparent debacle. The issue is, in fact, not without research political implications. Quite the opposite. Co-operations between the heritage sector and humanistic scholars are regularly envisioned as being beneficial and fruitful for all involved parts; in Sweden a major call for funding was for example recently issued by The Royal Swedish Academy of Letters, History and Antiquities regarding ‟Research and Collections”. Yet, regarding this film project it’s hardly my experience that I myself (nor my research group) have gained any general or scientific insights as a result of scholars and heritage institutions co-operating. Rather, due to radically different policies and approaches as to what audiovisual heritage institutions are instructed to do, academic perspectives have been totally neglected—even despised. All is not gloom, however, and I end with some suggestions how to resolve the project, in quite drastic ways.

Incompatible Film Heritage
The National Library of Sweden is a government agency under the auspices of the Department of Education and Research. The library’s task is ‟to collect, describe, safeguard and make accessible” all printed materials as well as all radio, television, film and music distributed in Sweden, primarily for research and the preservation of the nation’s cultural heritage (National Library of Sweden, 2015). The Swedish Film Institute also has a national responsibility for the nation’s film heritage; the mission is ‟to collect, catalogue, preserve and give access to Sweden’s film heritage”, for example via screenings at the Cinemateque (Swedish Film Institute, 2015). The focus of the Film Institute’s outbound activities is not research but rather popular education (understood in a broad sense). Thanks to a collaboration with the National Library, however, films in its collection are available for research. In addition, Swedish Television also has a substantial film archive. Archival copies are available for research, but academics cannot enter Swedish Television’s archival premises. The archive was established to facilitate television programs—not research.

These very different institutional aims, objectives and assignments regulating national film heritage has led to conflicting archival preferences in Sweden, especially regarding access. These opposing interests and intentions are the underlying archival rationale of why the infrastructural research project around has until now been a failure. Conflicting film archival policies and preferences have simply proven difficult to combine. Film scholars, in general, wants to work with vast and open online film collections and contextual media historical resources, a digital strategy the National Library has used in other online projects. The Swedish Film Institute, however, still seek to primarily give access to a curated filmic past (Jönsson, 2014) done under the aegis of ‟large-scale high-quality digitization”. In 2013 the Film Institute apparently managed to scan 20 fiction films in this way—a ridiculously low figure. A decade ago the Film Institute’s staff never mentioned access. Now it’s a buzzword: ‟The digitization of heritage films has the potential of providing access on an unprecedented scale, as new platforms have emerged to facilitate access and the fact that digital copies are not subject to same wear and tear as analogue film elements.” But to really provide access to film heritage you cannot scan 20 films a year—you need to mass digitize and radically alter the way you handle archival collections. Otherwise it will ‟take 200 years before the Swedish films in the archive’s collections will be digitized” (Wengström, 2013). In short, it’s an organisational (and monetary) quest where one puts an archive’s resources (which are always constrained). Nevertheless, if one really wants to provide access one cannot perform large-scale high-quality digitisation. Most libraries learned this lesson more than a decade ago due to Google’s book scan project.