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Ofness or Aboutness?

Towards a Taxonomy of Home Movies

How does an institution properly identify, catalog, and grant access to home movies in an archival setting? In “Out of the Attic: Archiving Amateur Films,” Jan-Christopher Horak sums up the issues with cataloguing home movies: “If one chooses to accept a collection, there seems to be no way of cataloguing these often titleless, creditless, unidentified pieces of celluloid, and therefore no means of integrating them into the archive.” This paper was written for MIAS: 230 Moving Image Cataloging and focused both on the various issues associated with access and cataloguing of home movies, and proposed solutions to these problems, like implementing controlled vocabularies to describe these types of films. 

 

In recent years there has been a revisionist movement in academia and the archival community to bring awareness to the significance of home movies as crucial historical artifacts worthy of preservation. The marriage of archival and academic concern over the proper preservation of home movies has placed these films under the spotlight, and the discussion is no longer if these films should be preserved, but rather, how they should be preserved. So in what ways can institutions identify, catalog and grants access to these artifacts? In his 1998 article “Out of the Attic: Archiving Amateur Films,” Jan-Christopher Horak concisely sums up the main issues with cataloguing home movies: “If one chooses to accept a collection, there seems to be no way of cataloguing these often titleless, creditless, unidentified pieces of celluloid, and therefore no means of integrating them into the archive.”[1] 17 years later and archivists are still dealing with the same issues addressed by Horak, and although various proposals and initiatives have been discussed in order to bring greater awareness to these films, home movies continue to be marginalized both within and outside the archive.

 

In the opening remark at the 2010 Center for Home Movies Digitization & Access Summit, Rick Prelinger comments on the perpetually problematic relationship between home movies and archives. He notes, “…home movies are hard to embrace, hard to process, hard to make accessible. And yet many, perhaps most of the people in this room fervently believe that home movies and amateur film are not only some of the most interesting works around, but also key to the future of film and media studies.”[2] Indeed, this remark echoes Horak’s statement about the inability to successfully integrate these artifacts within an archival setting; and despite the growing profile of home movies in archival and academic settings, accessibility and engagement continue to present challenges to the status of these films in the general public arena. So while both academics and archivists agree upon the imperatives of preservation and access for these films, the issues with properly cataloging these works, and subsequently providing access to them, is a major factor for their marginalized status amongst the general public.

 

Organized with the assistance of the Library of Congress, The Center for Home Movies Digitation and Access Summit brought together archivists and scholars to discuss the current state of home movies in the United States. The main focus of the summit was about the role digitization and online access can play in increasing the availability and understanding of home movies. The objective was not to engage in discussions about the validity of home movies as objects worthy of preservation, but rather to address how to properly preserve and maintain these artifacts.[3] Perhaps the largest undertaking of the summit was the development of a new cataloging and descriptive system capable of supporting an online home movie portal. The summit group dealing with the “taxonomy” of home movies proposed a set of controlled vocabulary that would create meaningful differentiation and categorization between these films and thus grant them greater awareness within the archive and beyond. Group members Albert Steg, Karan Sheldon, and Janis Young developed a genre and trope-based classification system designed to identify and classify the various reoccurring motifs visible throughout the home movie realm. The summit ultimately urged archivists to continue with the momentum of these proposals and work together to develop strategies for addressing access limitations currently facing the field. While the summit presented a plethora of initiatives that seem exceptionally beneficial to the proper preservation of home movies, academics and archivists continue to struggle in legitimizing and establishing a public profile for these films.

 

Although the widespread consensus of home movies as important historical artifacts has been accepted throughout academia and archives, the general public still considers these films as being mere curiosities and not worthy of preservation, let alone the subjects of special treatments within archives. Rick Prelinger addresses the uncanny fascination with these types of films by arguing that archivists have developed a cinephelia for home movies. He states:

Almost 30 years of working with nontheatrical film has left me mostly interested in home movies and the occasional sponsored film of excellence. This is home movie cinephilia. Many of you must know how hard it is for outsiders to understand this, but we also know how much more they understand when we actually get a chance to show them home movies.

 

Whereas archivists are passionate about these types of films, the fact still remains that the general public continues to perceive home movies as simple curiosities—slow, boring, repetitive and ultimately not worthy of consideration. And it seems that the impetus behind this way of thinking lies in the increasing inaccessibility of home movies due to the lack of (archaic) viewing equipment available to the public, as well as general feelings of uncomfortableness with archives. Accordingly, how should archivists and scholars alike bring the much-needed awareness to these artifacts and ultimately re-insert them into our dominant culture? And is this utopian ideal even a possibility? Perhaps the solution is a unified online access portal for home movies.

 

But before archives begin to make their home movies available to the general public via digitization, the cataloging methodologies used to categorize these artifacts need to be fined-tuned in order for institutions to begin to make sense of their holdings. Although a bit overly optimistic, Rick Prelinger’s remark about the future of home movies should serve as an inspiration for institutions to revaluate how they handle their home movies collections.

 

I think home movies and amateur film might be just what we need to link archives with an ever-growing public. They're inherently populist without being simplistic. They're documentary in all its chaos and purity, yet express an infinity of enticing narratives. They lend themselves to appreciation and analysis in a wealth of domains, many yet to be imagined. As the biggest chunk of the vast and mostly unknown body of nontheatrical moving images, they offer scholars many lifetimes of investigation. Intensive work with home movies will also change archival practice and workflow, and I think it will help archives garner the public support they need in order to flourish.[4]

 

As proposed in the Center for Home Movies Digitization & Access Summit a controlled vocabulary or ”taxonomy” for home movies is a necessary step in ensuring that these films are properly cataloged. Furthermore, creating a standardized taxonomy for home movies will establish guidelines on how to catalog and deal with these eccentric artifacts, thus encouraging other institutions to refocus their attention to these types of films.

 

The first step in achieving this goal is to establish an official differentiation in form between “home movies” and “amateur films.” In regards to this separation, the summit’s taxonomy group members state the following: “…their typically casual production values (usually unedited, rarely titled), their core subject matter (immediate family, local scenes, travel), and their limited intended audience (primarily family and friends) describe a very different media object from the outward-looking Amateur Film.”[5]  Indeed while there is a general agreement that home movies and amateur films are separate entities, most institutions have, and continue to catalog home movies under the “amateur films” form heading due to the lack of options available. The Library of Congress defines the “amateur films” form as being “A film made by anyone who is not professionally connected with the film industry.”[6] So although home movies technically fall under this form, grouping these films together with other, more elaborately produced “amateur films” marginalizes their positions in the archive and also makes them more difficult to access given the vast quantity of other material in this category.

 

By establishing a distinct formal term for these films, such as “home movies” institutions can differentiate them from other, more traditional amateur films in their system and create a more concentrated collection of home movies. With this in mind, there should also be a standardized, institutional-wide definition of what a “home movie” is. The one that was proposed at the Summit seems to be the best option at the moment, as it clearly differentiates home movies as being their own form of moving image material. It defines a home movie as “…a homemade motion picture created by individuals primarily for an intended audience of family members and friends within the immediate circle of the home.”[7] In refraining from using terms such as “amateur,” “personal” or “document(ary)” this definitions completely breaks away from previous definitions of home movies and thus enhances their status both within and outside the archive.[8] 

 

Furthermore, institutions continue to grapple with a lack of terminology that could effectively group together and/or differentiate different kinds of home movies. And for the most part, a vast quantity of information pertaining to home movies is derived from the material object itself. On identifying home movies, Snowden Becker notes that crucial cataloging information is available without having to view the material, “Even without labels, it may be possible to give the films an approximate date by examining the film stock closely or seeing the camera with which they were recorded. Even the cans spools can provide clues.”[9] Thus while a substantial amount of identifying information is available through the material object itself, such as color/B&W; sound/silent; and film stock, these details provide useful information pertaining to the ofness of the work, and catalogers must nonetheless view the films in order to ascertain the aboutness.

 

Enacting a controlled vocabulary or taxonomy of home movies is a necessary action in order to ascertain the aboutness of these films as it would properly identify significant regularities in form and content among the diverse and unregulated field of home movie film productions. Research on home movies has revealed that there are widespread similarities in these films. For example, in her 1986 analysis of home movies, Patricia Erens states, “…as others have noted, there is great deal of commonality in the poses and events photographed. Though we are supposedly free to photograph whatever we like, in reality we don’t.”[10] Although Erens is referring to amateur photography, her assertion still holds true in discerning the varying tropes present within the home movie realm as “the majority of home movies can be described by the narrow range of subjects they tend to depict.”[11] Consequently properly identifying and labeling the reoccurring motifs within home movies may provide the best framework for description and access.

 

A taxonomy of home movies aims at a different task: to identify significant regularities in form and content among diverse and unregulated field of film productions. Identification of Genres and Tropes proceeds empirically….Genres will emerge as they are recognized through viewing.[12]

 

So how can archives provide users with sufficient information for finding what they are searching for, or simply put, how do we satisfy the users most initial inquiry—“what is it about?” In The metadata is the interface: Better description for better discovery of archives and special collections, synthesized from user studies Jennifer Schaffner notes, “Roughly half of all users, regardless of preparation, began with a subject searching approach.” Thus users want to discover archival material using subject information.“…for discovery, Aboutness is very important element of description.” [13]

 

Furthermore, home movies are best described as part of a group and treated as a collection in order to further maintains the contextual relationship among the items. Although some archivists would advocate for the use of Library of Congress subject headings as a source for subject terms, the proposed taxonomy would be a better fit and allow for a more detailed and consequently, more useful description of items.  Commenting on Andrea Leigh’s seminal article “Context! Context! Context! Describing Moving Images at the Collection Level,” Jan-Christopher Horak notes :

 

“…the all-but-standardized process of cataloging moving image artifacts at the item level may be counterproductive in the short and medium term and should be rethought in terms of collection level cataloging. Collection level cataloging would in fact increase access by grouping together unidentified material—home movies, outtakes and other materials—according to provenance, or informational content, allowing researchers to proceed from the general to specific item level searches.”[14]

 

This conventional paper archive approach to cataloging would greatly benefit home movies by creating collection-level records and thus allow for the inclusion of granular biographical information, historical notes, and scope and content notes.

Moreover, the difficulties in properly assigning LOC subjects and genres headings to home movies is due to the very personal nature of these films. Consequently a cataloger finds it extremely laborious and difficult to decipher and describe the actions on screen using the LOC terminology. Therefore these vague, and incorrect subject headings have resulted in an unspecified, chaotic mass of terminology used to categorize home movies which have ultimately further marginalize these films from the general public and from one another.

 

Upon closer examination of the various tropes in these films, it becomes apparent that there could be established, meaningful sub-categories within the home movie form that could suitably categorize the various patterns of these films. Implementing a controlled vocabulary specifically for home movie description would be extremely beneficial in a) promoting better access to these films and b) further insuring that these films are properly preserved. In Introduction to controlled vocabularies: Terminology for art, architecture, and other cultural works, the Patricia Harpring defines controlled vocabulary as the following:

 

 A controlled vocabulary is an information tool that contains standardized words and phrases used to refer to ideas, physical characteristics, people, places, events, subject matter, and many other concepts. Controlled vocabularies allow for the categorization, indexing, and retrieval of information.[15]

 

Proposed controlled vocabulary of home movies by members of the summit include genres such as Narrative and Non-Narrative, Genre Defined by Maker, Genre defined by Formal Structure and Genre defined by Subjects matter.[16]

 

Furthermore, while genres function in defining the bulk of the material, proposed “tropes” would serve in the place of subject headings and would capture the smaller themes within the work. The following tropes were some of the ones suggested at the summit: Tropes defined by camera techniques, tropes defined by human behavior, and tropes defined by reoccurring imagery.[17] Lastly, it must be noted that these tropes would be flexible and open to addition as users begin to familiarize themselves with the reoccurring trends in the films.

 

Members from the summit acknowledge that characterizing “Identity Group” as a proposed subject seems to reinforce the institutionalized racism in society by positioning marginalized communities of people as “other.” They express their concerns by stating the following:

 

While researchers are likely to be interested in finding examples of “Feminist Films” or “African American Films” or “Gay Movement Films,” marking filmic expressions of these “identity groups” is problematic in a number of ways, not least of which is an ironic segregation of materials by people striving against various forms of exclusion and prejudice. (The best name for such a Genre might be Films of the Other.) While it is important for the public to be able to locate films involving such movements, they would be better marked either (a) by Subject Keywords descriptive of their actual content and (b) through biographical metadata describing the Maker of the films.[18]

 

Although it is important to understand why they object so strongly to terms such as “African Films” and “Gay Movement Films,” these labels ultimately function to provide greater access to the material, and it is important to advocate for the proper identification of these groups in a subject field, as well as in the keywords section and in the biographical metadata section. As Jonathan Furner notes:

 

When a person is seeking information, that person’s self-identification translates into a

hope, expectation, or assumption that works about people like the searcher will be collected at a single point on the shelves of a library or retrievable from a catalog using a single class label.[19]

 

While a taxonomy towards home movies seems like a step in the right direction in making sense of the large undifferentiated mass of home movie material in archival settings, the question of whether or not these initiatives spark enough interest to warrant the effort remains. Furthermore, if institutions were to adopt a standardized practice such as this, how would it be properly implemented into existing schemas? And how difficult would it be to teach existing and future archivists about the key distinguishing aspects in the categorization of home movies? 

 

Moreover, although a controlled vocabulary would be extremely useful to the cataloger and archivists, how would this taxonomy transmit to users?  Its seems as though the best way to address this issue is to advocate for a large-scale digitization project of home movie material that would then be available online through an interesting and innovative portal that advocates social tagging. The Texas Archive of the Moving Image home movie portal can serve as an example to the effectiveness of an initiative such as this.

 

Currently, the online participatory tagging system currently in use by the Texas Archive of the Moving Image allows all users to contribute information about footage housed on the archive’s website. The information then goes through a verification process and is subsequently time coded and attached to the footage in the appropriate place. This pioneering system of social tagging allows users to provide vital information about home movies and additionally offers viewers as well as catalogers additional information and points of access not original available. While the highly innovative initiatives of the Texas Archive of the Moving Image online portal can be viewed as a success, its long term effect in increasing the status of home movies to the general public still remain uncertain.

 

It is evident that many questions about the operations, scope and administration of the summit’s initiatives still remained unanswered even five years after the summit, and various questions about how to successfully transfer the compressive body of research into an existing model still remain unclear. “What is certain is that anything not described at all will not be consulted at all.”[20] Indeed, it’s difficult to asses the amount of work archives should put into cataloging home movie material, and although many believe that these films will bridge the gap between users and the archive, the current state of home movies proves otherwise. But instead of being discouraged, the archival community needs to reignite their efforts in preserving and providing access to these films. And perhaps another summit is necessary to (re)assess the successes and failures of the past and subsequently put forth greater efforts to improve access and preservation efforts of these priceless artifacts.

 

 

Works Cited:

 

[1] Horak, Jan-Christopher. "Out of the Attic: Archiving Amateur Film." Journal of Film Preservation 56 (spring 1998): 52.

 

[2] Center for Home Movies. (2011). Proceedings of the 2010 CHM Home Movie Summit: Report of the Working Group on Cataloging and Description. Culpeper, VA, September 23-25, 2010: 6.

 

[3] Ibid., 4.

 

[4] Center for Home Movies. (2011). Proceedings of the 2010 CHM Home Movie Summit: Report of the Working Group on Cataloging and Description. Culpeper, VA, September 23-25, 2010: 7.

 

[5] Ibid., 11.

 

[6] "Amateur Films." LC Linked Data Service (Library of Congress). Accessed March 3, 2015. http://id.loc.gov/authorities/genreForms/gf2011026038.html.

 

[7] Center for Home Movies. (2011). Proceedings of the 2010 CHM Home Movie Summit: Report of the Working Group on Cataloging and Description. Culpeper, VA, September 23-25, 2010: 11.

 

[8] For example, in Snowden Becker’s seminal text about home movies, “Families in a Can: The Presentation and Preservation of Home Movies in Museums” she defines home movies as “private, noncommercial, or amateur documentary film productions, whether narrative or nonnarrative.”

 

[9] Becker, Snowden. "Family in a Can: The Presentation and Preservation of Home Movies in Museums." The Moving Image: The Journal of the Association of Moving Image Archivists 1.2 (2001): 94.

 

[10] Erens, Patricia. "The Galler Home Movies: A Case Study." Journal of Film and Video 38, no. 3-4 (summer-fall 1986): 16.

 

[11] Becker, Snowden. "Family in a Can: The Presentation and Preservation of Home Movies in Museums." The Moving Image: The Journal of the Association of Moving Image Archivists 1.2 (2001): 96.

 

[12] Center for Home Movies. (2011). Proceedings of the 2010 CHM Home Movie Summit: Report of the Working Group on Cataloging and Description. Culpeper, VA, September 23-25, 2010: 7.

[12] Ibid., 13.

 

[13] Schaffner, Jennifer. 2009. The metadata is the interface: Better description for better discovery of archives and special collections, synthesized from user studies. Dublin, OH: 6.

 

[14] Horak, Jan-Christopher. “Editor’s Introduction.” The Moving Image: The Journal of the Association of Moving Image Archivists, 6.1, Number 1, (2006): x.

 

[15] Harpring, Patricia. 2010. “Controlled vocabularies in context”; “What are controlled vocabularies?”; “Relationships in controlled vocabularies”; “Vocabularies for cultural objects.” In Introduction to controlled vocabularies: Terminology for art, architecture, and other cultural works, 1.

 

[16] Center for Home Movies. (2011). Proceedings of the 2010 CHM Home Movie Summit: Report of the Working Group on Cataloging and Description. Culpeper, VA, September 23-25, 2010: 12-14.

 

[17] Ibid., 17-18.

 

[18] Ibid., 14.

 

[19] Furner, Jonathan. 2007. “Dewey Deracialized: A Critical Race-Theoretic Perspective.” Knowledge Organization: KO. 34 (3): 144: 22.

 

[20] Becker, Snowden. "Family in a Can: The Presentation and Preservation of Home Movies in Museums." The Moving Image: The Journal of the Association of Moving Image Archivists 1.2 (2001): 95.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

©Michael Pazmino 2017