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The following are the notes for a presentation  given by Academic Film Archive of North America director Geoff Alexander at the Association of Moving Image Archivists Conference, held in Anchorage in October, 2006. 

Archival Survival: Keeping Your Film Archive Healthy in an Increasingly Demanding Academic Environment

Panel discussion, 8:30 am to 10:00 pm, Friday, October 13, 2006

What’s the context of this presentation? 

As the Director of the Academic Film Archive of North America, I have either been engaged in buying or receiving donations of de-accessioned film libraries for nearly 15 years.  In most cases, film librarians were unhappy, and at times distraught over losing moving image archives that had taken sometimes decades to create.  Typical reactions to the dismantling of their archives ranged from surprise to shock, but in nearly all cases the individuals felt powerless to save their archives. 

Over the same period of time, I’ve been engaged in running a successful for-profit consulting company that advises corporations on navigating the organizational structures of their competitors in order to gain agreement to acquire solutions that sometimes run into the millions of dollars.  The companies who’ve engaged us include IBM, Cisco Systems, Lucent, and Symantec. 

The nexus of falling film archives and corporate decision methods may sound like a strange one at first, but I have become convinced that applying a few of the business concepts that we teach to Fortune 1000 companies may allow archivists to better prognosticate the future viability of their archives, and perhaps even save some collections from being donated to organizations like ours (but note: we’re always happy to receive your donations).  

Why is this important?

Potential danger flashpoints: Media archives existing within the framework of academic institutions are increasingly under pressure from a number of budgetary, philosophical, and political elements.

If contrarian enough, these may result in an archive losing full or partial funding, or physical space.

How big is the problem? 

That’s probably better worthy of a dissertation subject, but in the past several years, we have seen at least one major film archive (American Archives of the Factual Film, at Iowa State U) bite the dust.  We’ve also seen several archivist positions lose funding, or the archive itself lose space on the campus.  Many times a year, I receive calls from media libraries offering to turn entire collections over to us.  Recently, we’ve acquired the entire collections of the Illinois State Museum, Minneapolis Public Library, and Appalachian State University, among others.  I feel this indicates a trend that will get worse before it gets better. 

Today’s presentation serves as a warning that this condition could occur when least expected, but also offers ways to proactively see potential problem areas, and thereby better formulate a successful solution. 

This presentation holds particular value to archivists whose libraries struggle for budget and space, or whose institutional advocate is weak, non-existent, or needs additional alliances to ensure the health and survival of the archive. 

What you’ll come away with today are tools that fall into two discrete but interconnected areas:  

I)  Tools that will help you determine the “survival status” of your archive itself, or elements of its collection. 

II)  Recommendations on suggested ways to enhance the value of your archive to your institution.  

I.  Survival Tools 

The question I’m presenting today is “How can we, as archivists working for institutions, develop a bit of organizational intelligence and savvy so we’ll better understand the long term viability of our archives, and our own positions?” 

In business, everyone from Brand Managers to Project Managers understands the need to develop a “time telescope” to better understand how their domains are perceived by the individuals who ultimately control their fate.  If we can agree with the basic premise that better intelligence leads to improved planning and greater power, then it’s of value to look at a few tools that can assist us in gaining greater intelligence.  I’m suggesting today that we can successfully apply business tools within an academic or institutional environment to gather important data in a non-confrontational way. 

The tools I’ll now present are in the form of "scope", "requirements", and "budget" questions, within interrogative domains.  By asking all of them to one or more individuals, we will better know where our archives and we, as professionals stand. 

The two domains are: 

A.  Who you’ve got to know:  Understanding the “reporting route” to the top.

B. What you have to ask:  Questions you might want to consider asking these individuals to fully understand your archive’s current and projected role within the mission of the institution. 


Research you’ll want to consider doing before using the tools 


Collect institutional intelligence by developing an organizational chart, showing

Example: Say your archive falls within the library of your institution.  You probably already know the name of the Head Librarian.  Is he or she directly responsible for the archive?  If so, to whom does he or she report?  Is it the Dean of Academic Affairs?  If so, who does he or she report to?  Is it the Provost?  If so, he or she might report directly to the President.  In this example, these are the people that control funding and decision-making, as far as the archive is concerned.  Most, if not all of these people, are the ones you’ll want to consider approaching. 

Here’s an example of an org chart detailing the position of the archive within the institution:   

Archival hierarchical structure example, State University


How and Where do I apply these tools? 

1) If you’re a Director, or have an equivalent title, you might want to consider taking the Provost, or a similarly titled individual out for coffee, to ask the questions I’m presenting today.  Building even an informal relationship with these individuals is helpful 

2)  If you’re a person reporting to a Director-level individual, you may feel uncomfortable going over the head of your direct report.  To feel more comfortable, one approach is to tell the person you report to that you’ve gotten some tools at the AMIA conference that you’d like to use to better understand the position of the archive within the institution, and that you’d like to discuss the archive with several people at the institution.  Notice that I didn’t suggest asking permission?  Asking permission always invites a “no”, and you’re likelier to avoid resistance by just telling the individual what you’d like to do.  He or she will probably ask you about the tools, and you can “sell” the concept a bit.  He or she might even ask you to write up a small follow-up report on what you’ve found, a terrific idea, because then you can establish a dateline for your findings.  This could be the basis for establishing a survival plan, if you need one. 

"Scope" questions: 

1) Does the existence of the archive contribute prestige value to the institution? 

    If yes: please describe the reasons. 

    If no:  What are we lacking?

2) In your opinion, does our archive fit well within the overall mission statement of the institution/university?   

    If yes: How?  Please explain. 

    If no

    a)  Please explain.
    b)  How could we go about altering that perception?
    c)  On the whole, do your colleagues share that perception?
    d) What would you like to see us do to enhance the value of the archive to the institution? (actually a "Requirements" question, but fits in  
        conversationally here) 

"Requirements" questions 

1) In your opinion, how can our archive best:

    a) serve the needs of students and faculty?
    b) serve the needs of scholars and researchers?
    c) serve the needs of the public at large?
    c) enhance the prestige of the institution?
    d) work with you to achieve your own objectives critical to your domain? 

"Budget" questions 

1)  How does the funding situation look for our archive within the next 2-5 years?

2)  What challenges are you faced with when determining the amount of funding that will go to the archive?

3) What is the best way for our archive to work with you in order to assist you in accruing the needed budget?


II.  Seven recommendations that could assist in determining the current political health of your media archive, and enhance its value to your

1) Build your org chart, to understand the hierarchy of your institution, and the high-level people who affect it. 

2) Market your archive to the hierarchy.  Ask some of the questions we’ve discussed to these individuals so you know where your archive stands in terms of future and current viability.  Discuss rare items in your collection, and the prestige value they add to your institution.   


As an example, you might have difficult-to-find or “lost” moving images that attract visiting scholars to your institution.  At the AFA, for example, we have a rare film that is being used in southern Africa to assist a displaced people in recovering ancestral lands.  This ads social value to our archive well beyond standard cultural or economic criteria.

 3) Once you’ve done your due diligence with important people in the hierarchy, hold a “skull session” with your in-house archival colleagues, to discuss your findings, make recommendations, and get ideas on additional ways to enhance the value of the archive to the institution.

4) Market your archive’s resources to your end-users.  If Faculty uses your media resources, suggest older media ---  appropriate to subject matter --- as a way of introducing them to important older elements in your collection. 

5) If students are your customers, introduce them to important appropriate items from older media.  Many of them will never have seen a 16mm film.  If you have no way of viewing these, consider adding a 16mm viewing carrel, to be operated with paraprofessional assistance. 

6) Consider the value of doing periodical or monthly shows, highlighting important older media from your collection.   

7)  Take someone to lunch.  It doesn’t have to be expensive, and can just be a sandwich, but meeting someone “up the ladder” can enhance your value to the institution, too. 

In conclusion… 


Discarded collections and loss of access to archives isn’t an abstract concept.  It’s really happening.  Losing a collection is a tragedy, but it’s preventable, providing prior knowledge is collected, and proactive steps are taken to ensure its future health.   


The tools I’ve presented aren’t comprehensive, but they’re an important first step in repurposing us as collection advocates and saviors.


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