1. ‘On The Idea of Permanence’

To say that archival records are permanent seems to fix their nature beyond doubt and to establish beyond challenge the full extent of the archivist’s responsibility to them.1

Two years ago, while writing a paper on the preservation of amateur and small gauge film, I came across a reference to an article in the American Archivist by James M. O’Toole.2 The article, ‘On The Idea of Permanence’, highlighted for me what is so thoroughly compelling about the profession of film archiving: It is a profession which reacts to the mortality of mankind, not as the physician would by searching for a cure, but by endeavouring to preserve the objects and information man once created in his own image. That is, I see in the archiving profession an attempt to extend the life of a culture, society, institution or individual not by directly fortifying them as would a physician but by permanently extending the life of the image or the representation of a culture, society, institution or individual through the objects and information left by the passage of time.

As O’Toole has shown, the archiving profession (and not least the film archiving profession), uses language today which embodies the religious world-view of our ancient predecessors and what we have today is an idea of permanence which can be traced back to the advent of literacy. O’Toole is an Historian and his article shows how archivists’ ideas of permanence have undergone change since the foundation of the profession. He argues that within the ‘archival lexicon’ the word permanent has been used without much reflection. At first, this struck me as odd. I had spent five years at University from 1993-98 studying and later teaching, Buddhism, a religious and philosophical tradition based entirely around the idea of impermanence.3 By contrast, my new profession commits substantial amounts of time and money to ensure, as far as possible, that the product of mankind is ‘permanent’.

O’Toole’s article focuses on written records, tracing the shift from oral to written traditions and consequently the investment in an idea of the permanence of a culture’s language and writing. Initially, it was the ‘permanence of information’ which the earliest archives sought to achieve by publishing and diffusing their materials, distinguishing between the permanence of the document itself and the information which it carried. Historical collections were initially valued for the information they held which testified to the “’pastness of the past’ and thereby certified ‘the reality of progress.’ Only later did these repositories come to value their collections as ‘things’ worthy in their own right and, later still, as sources for specialised study by professional scholars.”4 This friction between the information and the artifact is no less an issue when preserving a motion-picture film, essentially a procedure of copying.

Ironically, technical developments over the years have ensured greater longevity of the carrier and its information yet also offered greater insight into the ultimate inherent instability of physical objects. Put simply, all things eventually decay and it is with this in mind that the film archivist must approach the task of preservation. Deterioration might symbolise failure to some both inside and outside the profession, but it is the archivist’s job to be able to offer an alternative understanding of the ‘ravages of time’. I hope by the end of this paper, I have begun to do so.

‘Preservation’ is often confused with conservation and restoration. O’Toole argues that the emergence of this confusion occurred during the 1940s when ‘permanence’ increasingly became a technical term due to the shift in focus of archivist’s activities towards the care and treatment of their physical collections. In film archiving, the terms remain slightly confused depending on who is being addressed and to add to this confusion we might include the often used phrase, ‘passive preservation’. This basically refers to the preparation of the film for correct storage as distinct from ‘preservation’ which might indicate both conservation and/or restoration.

In the 1970s, a rapid increase in the different types of media being produced and collected and the greater technical ability to increase the longevity of objects meant that the sheer quantity of material archivists were responsible for had become overwhelming. Their limitless commitment to preservation became more selective and the meaning of ‘permanence’ moved in line with a general interpretive shift: from history being regarded as a linear record of events to history as a dynamic presentation of human perception.5 An archive’s collection, once prized as immutable evidence of the past, gradually took on a different value. Objects that were previously prescribed an ‘intrinsic value’ were reconsidered and new standards were developed to judge this. This pragmatic re-evaluation continues. Today, in Britain for example, the Prime Minister’s rhetoric of “education, education and education” can be found reflected in the British Film Institute’s 2000/2001 Annual Review which places an overwhelming emphasis on education through access.6

This re-evaluation of archive collections led to the tendency to talk more of ‘passive preservation’ through the maintenance of a proper storage environment and less of routine conservation and restoration as a matter of procedure. Collections were increasingly seen as having ‘enduring value’ rather than being permanent records with ‘intrinsic value’. Today the absolute idea of permanence has finally given way to a more relative value defined by an “information-rich” climate which is “inclined to accord any particular datum or document a lesser value than would an information-poor society”7

This scant history of the idea of permanence has enabled me to introduce a number of considerations which will again be addressed in the closing section of this paper. There, I attempt to discuss the ethical implications of preserving five hand-painted films by the late Scottish filmmaker, Margaret Tait, held at the Scottish Film and Television Archive (SFTVA). The ideas of permanence, information vs. object-as-artifact, preservation, conservation and restoration are all relevant to the films under discussion and hopefully this paper demonstrates that a seemingly insignificant number of short films by a relatively unknown filmmaker can provoke serious ethical considerations that have implications throughout the archiving profession. Indeed, my guess is that debate over this ethic will only intensify over the next decade or so with the advance of digital technologies.

Finally, I should emphasise that any recommendations I make in this paper are done so with an awareness of the investment of public money and archival resources that such preservation necessitates. I believe that a film archivist should be fully aware of the implications of this relationship and their responsibility to the greater public good. Naturally, professional ethics should have a firm philosophical basis by which the profession can justify and defend it’s methods and practice, and it is in recognition of this that I felt I should begin by introducing the idea of permanence. It is, in a sense, my philosophical starting point.

  1. O’Toole, 1989, 12. []
  2. O’Toole, 1989 []
  3. In the simplest of terms, Buddhist philosophy is usually summarised as ‘The Four Noble Truths’ : The Existence of Impermanence (Dukkha); The Arising of Suffering Due to Desire (Samudaya); The Cessation of Suffering (Nirodha); The Path to the Cessation of Suffering (Magga). []
  4. O’Toole, 1989, 16. []
  5. O’Toole, 1989, 22. []
  6. “Education remains our first priority. In agreement with the purposes of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport as set out by the Film Council by whom we are funded, the bfi seeks to promote the knowledge and understanding of film and the moving image throughout Britain’s schools and colleges.” Joan Bakewell CBE, bfi Chair. These are the first two sentences of the Review. []
  7. O’Toole, 1989, 24. []