Many items in the AFI archive have been digitized to preserve a copy in case it falls prey to physical decomposition. But while digital items are safe from most physical threats, they present their own high-tech challenges in archiving.
“All of our digital items are stored physically in multiple places,” Vaughn says. “This safeguards the loss of digital materials due to a malfunction or damage to storage drives. We also pay close attention to technological changes to ensure that our digital files are always accessible. All of our digital files have archival copies in lossless formats.”
Funny that a place so dedicated to the past — where you can stumble upon reel-to-reel projectors, VCRs and even the infamous Betamax machine — would also rely so heavily on modern concepts. But, as Vaughn explains, bridging yesterday and tomorrow is a necessity.
Since the 20th century, film has been a powerful artistic form, blending American technical prowess with our passionate approach to storytelling. But not only does art reflect our culture, it has the power to shape it.
“American films matter in a host of ways: as the great art form of the 20th century, as endlessly revealing cultural documents, as popular entertainment with a worldwide audience and an abidingly deep influence on how America and American-ness has been imagined,” says Dr. Gregory Waller, a professor of film and media studies at Indiana University and the editor of the journal Film History. “So many important films are likely lost forever that it is imperative to keep up the preservation efforts that have proven to be so significant over the past 20 years.”
But according to Vaughn, these practices are important for another reason too. When we watch old movies, he contends, we aren’t just looking back — we’re also looking forward. Access to historic treasures, like the ones housed at the AFI, is important for cultivating creativity, and when films die, our culture suffers.
“Art is not created in a vacuum; it is built upon an exchange of ideas,” he says. “Thus, the archiving of films serves to inform both historians and artists. Movies must be preserved if they are to continue to inspire.”
Frequent American Way contributor KIM SCHMIDT believes firmly in matinee showings and butter on her popcorn. She writes from Champaign, Ill.