YouTube and Archives, Scarcity and Abudance

A room for viewing UCLA Film and Television Archive materials in the Powell Library.

I've been in Los Angeles since early August with Elana and our two children mixing business and pleasure. Some of the time we have been tourists, and some of the time we have been doing research at the UCLA Film & Television Archive while one kid goes to day camp (the eight year-old) and one is in the care of a babysitter (the two year-old). The initial motivation for the trip was (1) to get Elana time at the archive to watch old soaps for her book project on the history of daytime drama, and (2) to spend time in LA, a place we have both been eager to explore. Elana has been here a few times before doing research, but I had only visited on a family trip in 1985, when I was thirteen. Finding research for me to do here too was secondary (though it got me to apply for and receive a small-ish amount of travel funding -- and something productive to do for part of the three weeks we have been living in LA). As it turns out, there are materials in the Archive’s collection that I have been excited and grateful to access, that will be important for my work. I made some discoveries here too. 

The research I have been doing is for my book project on early video games. I have been watching television commercials for game systems and game titles from the 1970s and early 80s, news segments on video games from the early 80s from the News and Public Affairs (NAPA) collection, and an episode of the anthology drama Insight with a video games theme from 1983 (this was a discovery - I hadn't known about this series, and I watched several more episodes while here, all of which are fascinating in various ways and maybe material for a future blog post). 

As in a previous research trip, I have been wary of “wasting” my time here looking at things that are freely available online - i.e., on YouTube. Every time I checked Google to see if the commercial I was watching is on YouTube, I said a little atheist prayer that I would be unable to turn it up online. At the same time, I would be a bit relieved upon locating versions on YouTube: my note-taking at the archive would not be the only record I would keep of my viewing. Any time I did find the same item on YouTube, I downloaded the video (using the Chrome extension FastestTube) and saved it to my research files for later reference. My folder of commercials is now swelling with videos downloaded from YouTube, many more than I have watched in archives. But of course YouTube is an archive, and increasingly it is the archive. It's a dangerous fallacy to assume that everything is online now, but it's also important to recognize how much public value there is in easily accessible materials that have only existed for a short time. I find myself in tension between these two kinds of excitement: at finding so much on YouTube, but also at finding the really good stuff that is not on YouTube. 

You probably know why finding useful, important materials that are not on YouTube excites me. Perhaps most of all, it justifies my travel here, my time spent in the archive. It also gives me something to write about that others are unlikely to have discussed already, offering a claim on originality. It fits the romantic narrative of research as a quest for rare artefacts, for revealing clues along the way to solving the big mystery. It  lets me perform a certain kind of scholar identity - I’m no mere armchair theorist, I’m a historian in the archive seeking documentary evidence. If your work requires a trip from Milwaukee to Los Angeles, that must make it distinguished and significant. There's also some of that self-satisfied elitism that comes with scare knowledge - like the masculinist record collectors, cinephiles, sports fans, etc., one-upping each other with the rarity of their acquisitions and experiences.

But there is something a bit distasteful to me about the fetishizing of scarce archival artefacts in which I fully admit I participate. In a way I’m upholding a hierarchy of materials and practices, in which websurfing and watching YouTube videos is a kind of casual scholarship - if you can call it that - that practically anyone can do, while accessing the materials in the archive is more serious and productive. In the introduction to her book Welcome to the Dreamhouse, Lynn Spigel writes of a distinction between "high" historical research in government or university institutions, and "low" research undertaken in retail environment, shopping for memorabilia and pop culture ephemera. She indicates an intention to "scandalize these divisions." (13) I would like to propose a similar point, but substituting watching videos online for shopping. 

Watching videos online isn't the only way of accessing the moving image culture of the past, but we can do a lot with what we have available. Yes there are problems. There is the bias of the present to contend with - YouTube only has what people in the past seven years have deemed worth sharing. This bias applies to archives too, and YouTube is much more democratic, its "curators" and "archivists" representing much broader constituencies than those of institutions. There is often a question of provenance and completeness and identifying information. Sometimes we don't know what we're looking at on YouTube, and I never know if I can trust the YouTuber's facts - how do they know this was on TV in 1977? There is an ephemerality, too - things that were there once are gone, things that are there now might vanish tomorrow, and the copyright regimes of the future might end the freedom of access we now enjoy. 

What I was most excited to access here were commercials for video games that I have never seen before, and I wish I could post them to YouTube - or that the archive could. This would help it broaden a mission of access to match its efforts at preservation. Issues of rights stand in the way, and as the archivist here, Mark Quigley, explained to me, advertising is often harder to clear than other forms of media because of uncertainty over who actually holds rights to materials - clients or agencies. It might not be possible to get me rights to reproduce images from these tapes or disks for publication, which I might like to do (I will probably request that the archive seek permission from the rights holders, but I'm not that hopeful). 

Sometimes archival materials come with helpful identifying data. The spots I watched were often preserved and deposited on reels submitted for awards. I often saw commercials preceded by title cards identifying the agency and the date, and sometimes other creative personnel (e.g., if an ad was submitted for an award for photography, the DP might get a credit). I don't remember ever noticing a specific date and ad agency given in YouTube tags or descriptions. Some of the ads I watched here represent video games and other electronic toys as space-age computer technologies, or as "new wave" trends for hip young people. Some of them are different from other ads I have watched. 

However, despite knowing who made them and when, I have no way of knowing from the archive's catalog or from the materials themselves whether these ads ever aired on American television. All I know is what I have found out at the archive - the catalog info and the info on the tape or disc. One reel I watched was of Canadian commercials that aired in the early 80s, but I only recognized this because I grew up in Canada in the early 80s - not because of any effort to identify the materials by nation in the catalog. Another researcher might assume they were American ads. One benefit of YouTube videos is that we know they were aired, and recorded off air, and their descriptions and comments often add more context. It is only by having been broadcast in the first place that they have made their way to YouTube: someone recorded them with their VCR and saved the recording. In some ways this information is as valuable as the data available from an official institution.

YouTube videos can also be easier to study. One skill this trip has called upon is detailed transcription and description of speech and images. I am not ordinarily accustomed to this kind of detail-focused task. In most of my writing I have had video copies that I have personally owned of texts I am analyzing, and have often rewatched segments as necessary while writing about them. In writing about these archival videos I have only had one crack at the text, and I would pause and rewind frequently, eager to quote correctly and note details I might need to describe later on. I watched one episode of Nightline on video games from 1983 that I almost completely transcribed, only leaving out some short passages that didn't seem relevant enough to warrant the effort. I spent a whole morning just on about twenty minutes of video (when you subtract the commercials and the brief segment on a different topic). I wish that episode would be posted online. It would get a huge audience, I think, of retro gamers and more generally Gen X'ers nostalgic for the early 80s. A young Sherry Turkle appears talking about her book The Second Self -- about men in pinstripe suits replacing their lunch hour transcendental meditation with a midday session at the video arcade. A PTA official complains that kids are wasting their meal money and bus fare at the "video parlors," and that their time there isn't adequately supervised by adults. A junior high principal on Long Island calls video games "another nail in the coffin of our country." 

To wish that items like this were on YouTube is to desire to share and make accessible the media of the past. It seems wrong to feel good because this tape is only available to me as a researcher in an archive.

Most of all, what I want to point out here is that one archive is not better than another. Archives, public and online and institutional, are historically useful, depending on your interests. The scarcity of the institutional archive doesn't make it superior to the abundance of the public online archive, and vice versa. There is value in both scarcity and abundance. Historiographically, scarcity is more manageable. Abundance can be daunting and it makes our work more time and labor intensive. But it's also, obviously, such a blessing to media historiography. And while it's easy to access, the hard work is to make sense of it all.
Powell Library, home of the UCLA Film and Television Archive.

My flickr photos tagged los angeles are mostly not of UCLA.

My tumblr fraktastic contains images relevant to this research project on video games; my tumblr giferrific is just GIFs.