A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
everett collection
Vaughn, who earned his master’s degree in library and information science from San Jose State University, came to AFI in 2011 and oversees a staff of eight who are responsible for maintaining this assemblage of Hollywood history. With half a million items, this is no small feat, as different relics need different kinds of care. Prints and tapes, for instance, require a lot of physical space as well as a light- and temperature-­controlled environment, which slows ­degradation and the development of vinegar syndrome, one of the most common causes of film decay that occurs when heat- or ­moisture-exposed film releases acetic acid. And, as quickly as the industry changes, Vaughn and his team are constantly implementing ways to preserve new technologies, such as born-digital photographs and movies shot in high definition.

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.

AFIs campus
seth pierson/american film institute
“It takes a lot of luck, several backup machines and a plan to adapt to emerging technologies to keep movies on obsolete formats accessible,” he says. “For most of these formats, the goal is to transfer content as accurately as possible rather than rely upon outdated playback equipment. It is only a matter of time before some formats are inaccessible due to a loss of the machines necessary to play them.”

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.