Greg Wilsbacher: The value of newsreel libraries

Roundup: Talking About History

[Greg Wilsbacher is director of the Newsfilm Library and curator of the Fox Movietone News Collection at the University of South Carolina.]

... American newsreels have been treated rather dismissively by most historians. If they are remembered, they are regarded as a collection of staged, somewhat hokey stunts featuring a seemingly endless series of animal stories, dance crazes, and posing politicians. On occasion, the newsreel cameramen would get lucky and catch a dirigible exploding or a Lindbergh taking off.

Although some news events were staged, most newsreel stories (even the hokey ones) depict ordinary people (even if they only exist in the margins of the story) doing entirely ordinary things. The value of such film as an image-and-sound reference library was not lost on motion-picture companies. Need a shot of a small New England town square at Christmas time? Search the newsreel library for a story shot in a New England town during the Christmas season. Ultimately, this practice deteriorated into the commonplace stock-footage market where the evidentiary value of individual images gave way to generic descriptions.

Newsreel libraries were enormous — the Fox Movietone News library was estimated at 100-million feet of film when the organization ceased newsreel production in the early 1960s. After the newsreels folded, these libraries were as much a liability as an asset to the corporations owning them. Paying the rent on the land and buildings required to store them outweighed their commercial value....

Film archives are now finally coming into their own as integrated parts of American universities. While South Carolina and UCLA hold large deposits of newsreel footage, additional material will continue to turn up in other collections. Substantial archival and historical work remains to be done on old news and actuality films as well as the ephemeral odds and ends of filmic history that can be found in many archives. The vaults at South Carolina alone could support a decade's worth of dissertations if we remember they contain more than caricatures of our past.

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