Going “Bananas” in Digital Archives

This week we are taking a look at different digital archives and thinking about what they might offer over traditional print archives, how they are structured, and how their design/functionality might be improved.

After clicking around a few of the archives I was intrigued by the Prelinger Archives. This archive represents a collection of “ephemeral” films initially collected by Rick Prelinger. While a physical location and collection still exists, most of the archive is now available online through the Internet Archive. A majority of the items in the collection are a part of the public domain and can be used in whatever manner the user chooses. (It should be noted, however, that the Internet Archive will not give written permission for any particular film or clip to be used, rather, Getty Images serves as the collections “stock footage sales representative.” This means that, for a fee, Getty will give you a license to use clips from the films in the Prelinger collection that will protect you against any copyright infringement claims.)

This collection strikes me as especially useful in a digital form because of the nature of the items; that is to say, films ranging from the turn of the twentieth century through to the present day. On a digital platform, these films can be presented to researchers in a number of formats that do not require the use of a wide range of hardware, no physical travel is required, and the large physical space necessary to store so many films can also be minimized. Another benefit is that the digital format presented online allows for the videos to be cleaned up and and any damage repaired.

Home page of ther Prelinger Archives (Screenshot 11/8/2014)

Home page of the Prelinger Archives (Screenshot 11/8/2014)

Let’s turn to the interface of the Prelinger’s online home. The design is fairly simple; bordered areas of text contain information about rights, the history of the archive, and a forum section for user interaction. There are various routes to accessing the materials themselves; there is a list of items alphabetically, there are sub-collections, lists of “Staff Picks,” “Most Downloaded Items Last Week,” and “Most Downloaded Items.”

This last list, “Most Downloaded Items,” goes a long way to show the impact and traffic the site has. The most downloaded film is¬† About Bananas. This is a 1935 film, commissioned by the United Fruit Company, to inform people about the process of growing and shipping bananas. About Bananas has been downloaded nearly 27 million times.

(The clip above is the same film uploaded to YouTube, where it only has 171 views.)

Clearly, with that many downloads, About Bananas appeals to a variety of users of the archive. A historically-based research and writing project could easily use About Bananas as a central piece of primary evidence. For instance, a project considering the impact of Western owned agricultural firms on the environment and culture of Central American countries during the first few decades of the twentieth century. Because the film is silent, it could be creatively used alongside music of narration in a documentary on the banana industry or Central American-United States relations.

Alternatively, a comparative approach might use About Bananas along side another film from the Prelinger Archives, the 1945 US Government produced Emergency in Honduras.

While About Bananas is basically an ad for Americans to buy bananas, Emergency in Honduras shows the perils of dependence on the banana  when war interrupts shipment of the fruit. Both films, however, portray an image of money and intelligence from the United States swooping in to save Central Americans through labor jobs, first in the banana fields and then through public works projects that speed the production and export of war-time goods instead of bananas.

Using these two films together creates a unique view of Central American-United States relations through two specific moments in time. By using keyword tagging, the user can easily see a link between the two films that might otherwise be in different sections because of their age, their creators, etc.

I like the tagging and the other forms of navigation through the Prelinger archive. The only thing that confused me was the “Related Collections” section of the home page. I wasn’t sure if these items were other sub-collections within the Prelinger or whether they were totally separate. Thinking they were a part of the Prelinger archive, I spent quite awhile looking at drive-in movie theatre intermission ads; but, after a second look, I don’t believe that collection is a part of the Perlinger so I moved on to other items.

A means of improving the value of the online archive, to academics at least, would be to add more detailed information about the films. The downloadable metadata does not include year, location, or any sort of Dublin Core level data. The metadata does, however, contain information like keywords, description, rights, date uploaded, and title.

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