Screening on 16mm

[Cross-posted at Dr. Mabuse's Kaleidoscope.]

The current Cinema Journal (45.3) has an interesting and valuable forum on the death of 16mm. The problem is a familiar one: DVD has allowed vastly improved availability of film texts, both for personal research and classroom screening, but it has also given departments and university administrations the excuse to curtail their screenings in 16mm. There are partly nostalgic reasons to bemoan 16mm's demise, but some better ones, too: 16mm remains the primary gauge for distribution of experimental work; it gives students more than approximation of the formal characteristics of the photographic image itself; and it sets the tone for a more theatrical filmwatching experience rather than the distractedness of the home video setting.

Currently, I'm in an in-between situation. Thanks to lab/screening fees, Temple does have (modest) money that I can use for 16mm rental, for which I'm thankful, though as a rule they tend to prefer investment in a library of DVDs that can be used in subsequent semesters. Like many film schools, they have a (modest) collection of 16mm prints, a couple of which I'm screening in my intro class, but there exists no archivist, librarian or support staffperson to coordinate these holdings for classroom screening in a centralized fashion for the university, much less to aquire new material or arrange for rentals. Classrooms, including the lecture hall I'm in for intro, do seem to be set up for 16mm projection, often with decent equipment, yet the lack of culture around 16mm screening means that any instructor wanting to do 16 is the difficult exception and must take the initiative and work to do test runs and projection her or himself. In other words, for someone insisting on 16mm (and I do, especially for at least a couple of films for intro), I could be in a far worse environment, but I'm still saddened and even frustrated that more is not shown on film here these days.

I'd be curious to hear others' experiences. Do people have it better - or worse - than me? Do people have resources or strategies they'd suggest to continue to use 16mm? I've not tried interlibrary loans yet, or the smaller soon-to-go-out-of-business distributors.


Diana King said…
I'd say you have it about average. I've seen schools with basically no support at all nor any real access to 16mm for instruction, and others (almost always connected to archives like PFA, or media centers in CCUMC) that are impressive in the amount of materials and projection expertise they offer.

It's been a big thorn in my paw that most library schools ceased several years ago to teach A/V skills like projection or even basic preservation practice. The newer specialty Film Archiving graduate programs and organizations like AMIA promote the idea of proper projection technique (esp. of archival prints and obscure formats), but most of those graduates want to work at actual film archives and theaters--not some regular old university library, even though that's where there's a great deal of need right now. I've heard horror stories involving severely burned prints due to flat out lack of knowledge by library staff, but more often it's the "do it yourself" scenario you are in. Library administrators are largely ignorant of the problem since they consider this a dead format, and I've seen archivists not specifically trained in film studiously avoid all things celluloid. Several research libraries, like Illinois, simply "de-accessioned" their educational 16mm collections or handed them out to academic departments ill-equipped to handle the responsibility (but at least willing to take it on). Even Berkeley got rid of their Media Extension office, leaving the staff to madly scramble in the search for a new distributor or even a home for the prints.

At my institution, all the playback hardware is housed and managed by a non-library unit: Classroom Technology Services. They do set-up if a projector is not in the classroom, and allegedly provide some training. Their forte is clearly video and DVD, but they do have staff available to help. The times I've seen actual film screenings here, I noticed that it's the student hobbyist types who seem to know what they're doing with the projector.

There's a decent related article on the failure of public libraries to maintain or preserve their 16mm collections, which have often been used by educators in places like New York:

Rossi-Snook, Elena
Persistence of Vision: Public Library 16mm Film Collections in America
The Moving Image - Volume 5, Number 1, Spring 2005, pp. 1-27
zoe p. said…
I posted a comment at Dr. Mabuse, but I found what Diana King had to say so interesting that I'll comment again . . .

Why did most library schools stop teaching AV skills? Do university libraries want dvd/video librarians to have these skills? Or do they want to hire lots of different people with separate, specialized skills? Would a university without a major film archive even really hire someone with a film preservation education? Or would they need them to do film and video librarian things too? Basically, how much overlap in the two areas can there be and why isn't there more, or less? And is it the jobs or the educations that decide this?

My research and grad education has taken me to a college archive (where they're sort of just beginning to realize they have celluloid materials they need to address and don't have the people or funds), a university library where they've hired someone to do film pres and someone else to do dvd aquisition and someone else to do something else again . . .

Well, in any case, I'm very interested in this, I find myself reading Moving Image now and then and I'm so glad to bookmark your blog, Diana! Thanks! And thanks to Chris for posting on the issue.
Diana King said…
zp, these are all very good questions. I think that both MLIS programs and library institutional culture have a roll to play. For library education, the two choices seem to be extreme specialization or generalization to the point of no depth in anything. There is also a lack of well-coordinated assistantships and training beyond readings and discussion. Sure, this is partly up to the students, but I also think that libraries and archives need to step up and be willing to help.

Formalized educational degrees in film preservation are a relatively new phenomenon, so that many of the longstanding archivists in the field really learned by doing, reading, sharing info, etc., as much as any specific training they received in grad school. The preservation end is pretty niche, since it requires hands-on training, knowledge of chemistry, and so on. I'm definitely glad the new programs and the students are out there, but it also means that there is a bit of a glut right now of very qualified, unemployed new people in the field who may or may not have any general library training. Most archives are not "film archives," but almost all of them contain at least some film. If an institution isn't willing to hire university archivists with an educational background in the handling of film (or pay to outsource that expertise for special preservation projects), those materials tend to just sit around. If people with a film preservation background aren't willing to compromise and also work with non-film related materials, then they're not even applying for those jobs.

The track of media librarians working with educational access collections is usually different, and this is where I think there's been a failing of general library school curriculum. In light of the glorification of digital technologies, "A/V" (once taught as a class in many library schools) is seen as some overly quaint categorization. The feeling seems to be that media can be addressed as one aspect of any given course (cataloging, preservation, reference, etc.). As a grad student, I could write on film and video in these classes, but really got no help from the readings and no hands-on training that I didn't fervently pursue myself. The reality is that these general survey courses simply can't cover film (or video, or DVD, or streaming video) in any great detail at all. The best information I got was from reading on my own and working at a job in the media center to learn from the staff there. So, I do think some sort of class should return to library school curriculum where media is the star attraction.

Libaries themselves do a lot of navel gazing, and I think they could tap expertise walking around on their own campuses and communities far more than they do. Some institutions also just have a far greater commitment to making film and video accessible than do others. Apart from any formal degree, they should also be willing to pay for or to arrange some basic continuing education training for staff handling media. AMIA offers fairly expensive workshops with hands-on training at the annual conference, but I'm hopeful that there will be more localized mini-training sessions in the future. While many media librarians are very knowledgeable, not every school has one and not everyone handling media is that well trained. For example, staff in charge of marking DVDs here with a bar code had been just writing this with a Sharpie onto the disc. Sharpies (other than the special CD/DVD kind) are very bad for commercial DVDs since they are too acidic. Writing on the surface also ruins double-sided DVDs. This could have been completely avoided had anyone given the staff the most basic training on this issue. They aren't media librarians who would have learned this in school, but you can see how good in-house training on the handling of media (I'm talking preservation in the most basic sense) for all sorts of employees in a library is necessary.
zoe p. said…
thanks for the crash course. some day i'll give it *all* up to become a librarian . . .

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