A group of college-aged women dressed in togas roll hoops to a finish line and jump over hurdles in the 1920s. Another group of women listens diligently to recordings of consonants and vowels for an English speech course in the 1940s. Others are dressed in their best winter clothes with suitcases in hand about to embark on a journey to the Westchester hills. What do all these women have in common? They are all part of Barnard’s unique history.
The Barnard Film Archives articulate the many ways in which Barnard students crafted the campus’ history and culture through its Moving Image collection. The collection includes a wide variety of videos related to Barnard faculty, coursework, and campus. However, students today face issues of accessibility due to the increasing demands for funding and labor that a moving image collection requires in a digital world.
Barnard’s Moving Image collection holds a visual history of the College’s events, performances, guest speakers, and promotional materials. Martha Tenney, Barnard director of archives and special collections, explained the limited span of this archive’s understanding of Barnard’s public image and students’ personal daily experiences.
“Most of the recordings that we have document events on the campus and performances,” Tenney said. “[The archive] can’t maybe say as much about what it was like to live in a dorm at a certain year or what the experience of a commuter student was, or even the experience of being in a class. But it could tell you about the events that student clubs were holding, the speakers who were coming to campus, the kinds of public life on campus.”
The collection’s beginnings lie in short documentary clips from the early 20th century. Some clips were shot by alumni themselves, others by outside companies hired by Barnard. These videos capture both the mundane and exciting moments of being a Barnard student, such as students walking down The Jungle, a path on Barnard’s campus, or participating in the Greek Games.
Some of the most compelling films comprise of reels with lectures from notable women leaders such as Ntozake Shange, Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, and bell hooks; former Barnard facilities including the Brinckerhoff Theatre; and students’ trips to the Barnard Camp, a campsite filled with log cabins owned by the College in Westchester where students could escape a long semester of hard work.
Despite videos ranging across academic disciplines, the Moving Image collection still upholds standards for archival content. These standards prioritize curating content that uplifts marginalized voices and feminist work and documents relevant to Barnard’s history. In explaining the Barnard archive collection development policy, Tenney pointed out that her interests lie both in upholding Barnard’s institutional history and its greater global impact.
“I try to think about its incredibly subjective historical value and what would be of interest to a researcher wanting to learn about either Barnard’s history or events that happen at Barnard,” Tenney said. “I think about that not just in terms of the record of Barnard’s history but the space that the college is positioned in within broader historical narratives.”
As the Internet and digital technologies permeate daily life, the Barnard archives have adapted to the increasing desire for online collections. However, film presents a unique set of problems as it moves into the digital landscape. A majority of the Moving Image collection is in tape-based formats, such as VHS and MiniDV. In order to convert these moving images into a digital format, archivists must create computer recordings.
“You have to have a flatbed, you have to have the equipment,” Breixo Viejo, visiting professor of film studies at Barnard and film historian, said. “So you have a 35 millimeter [film strip], you need the machine to go frame by frame and take pictures of the frame by frame in order to put it in your computer.”
After this process is complete, archivists will often attempt audio and image remastering since time, inadequate storing conditions, and older technology lower viewing quality, Tenney explained. Moving the videos into collections requires descriptive work, which provides an explanation of the contents, and transcribing for accessibility purposes.
Lastly, copyrights are taken into account—often determining if clips can be uploaded online or not. If Barnard does not have documented agreements with performers, speakers, or others featured in the clips, the archives do not have the copyrights to publish the content online. This thorough process inevitably restricts accessibility for students and faculty to learn more from these films and about the history they hold.
Tenney also noted the challenges of developing digital documents as technology continues to evolve at a rapid pace.
“You have to balance and try to think about what format will allow me to preserve a reasonably uncompressed and high fidelity version of a recording so that you don’t have weird glitching or artifacts or things like that,” Tenney said. “On the other hand, what will I be able to pay for the storage for, what will I be able to read within twenty years, what software programs will be still widely in use, what formats will be widely in use?”
With these challenges at hand, questions regarding the Moving Image collection’s accessibility arise. According to Viejo, both technological and political factors determine how easily people can access film archives. Given that this process limits the number of accessible films, institutions then fall into the politics of determining which scholars should access these films, how the collections are divided, and what the content of the films reveal about the institution itself.
“With the pandemic, the way we watch movies is transformed and the digitalization of original prints becomes essential,” Viejo said. “Also, because we are rewriting the canonical film history, we are saying, ‘What about women? What about Black filmmakers? What about homosexuality, gays, lesbians, transgender [individuals], etc?’”
For Barnard’s archives specifically, Tenney elaborated on the issue of accessibility as extending beyond the Moving Image collection. While unique issues such as degrading tapes and longer digitization processes specifically plague the Moving Image collection, other positives remain. Often, the Moving Image collection has more detailed inventory descriptions and a history of tape circulation contributing to greater individual cataloging that the archive continues to utilize today.
“Our digital collections are really a tiny, tiny fraction—I would say probably less than one percent—of our entire holdings we’ve been able to digitize,” Tenney said. “So it’s not like the moving images are being neglected more than other paper materials. We don’t have the labor to really do mass digitization at a large scale for most collections in the archives.”
Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the archives in multiple ways. While online archives have become the focus of many researchers continuing work during restrictions, the financial repercussions of the pandemic lessen the ability of the archives to keep up with demand.
“While the pandemic has made the digital collections extremely vital, it’s also meant that we have less labor,” Tenney said. “In terms of the full-time positions at the archives, there’s been a delay in hiring for a second full-time position because of the financial impacts of the pandemic. There’s pushes in multiple directions for providing service, especially to remote researchers at this time.”
However, despite these limitations and restrictions that come with the territory of archival film research, their documentation and accessibility are essential to understanding the past. According to Viejo, without digitizing original prints of films, there is a risk of losing the films altogether given their fragility. In relation to Barnard, its own Moving Image collection is essential to weaving together the pieces of its campus history in its unique way.
For Tenney, the Moving Image collection still upholds the archives’ core values of increasing accessibility. Credentials are not required to access the archives and they continue to remain open to researchers of all ages, including high school students and outside researchers. Tenney hopes to secure greater funding and establish more positions within the archives to better tackle the large amount of untapped historical content. Tenney also sees greater potential for new types of archival content to enter the Moving Image collection, such as social media pages and student work.
“There was a film production class where one of their assignments during the first month of [COVID-19] was to produce videos that documented their life somehow, [and] we collected some of those for the archives,” Tenney said. “The goal is to do something that’s more representative of the lives of the people who make this institution happen rather than only official events.”
While the emergence of COVID-19 allows for more representation of student lives at Barnard through the archived films, the social and political reckonings of the past year will also inevitably change the way the film archives are approached. With more students of color, first-generation low-income students, LGBTQ+ identifying students, and students from other marginalized communities, Barnard must document these students’ experiences at a historically white institution in order to understand systemic discrepancies at the college and what these students of the past did to open up more opportunities for students like them.
“[When] the demographics change, the politics through which we rewrite history change——and movies that were unimportant suddenly become important,” Viejo said. “It’s very important to document the history of women and [their] access to college. It’s part of the fight. It’s part of the feminist struggle in the 20th century.”