Research trips to libraries, museums, archives, heritage sites and other vessels of historical data involve a different set of rituals and preparations, compared to the process of interviewing working professionals, or conducting audience surveys or consulting Google.
When I prepare for an archive visit, I am less concerned with cramming everything there is to know about my subject, or with judging whether my outfit is too formal or not formal enough; I am more concerned with jotting down exact reference numbers, checking up on the regulations regarding note-taking and sharpening my pencils accordingly. Researching in archives, libraries and museums does require forethought and preparation, but so long as you’ve done your due diligence as a researcher, the archives will reward you with a period of focused research with your materials, without the distraction of social interaction. The documents don’t answer back.
Even when the methods are the same, analysing something that has already happened is different to studying phenomena in the moment that it is happening, or when it is reaching its peak. Archives are viewed primarily as repositories of historical evidence, and by ‘historical’ I mean the received understanding of the word, meaning ‘from the past’. So it mightbe argued that the use of archives is irrelevant for media industry research, which is concerned with understanding how the media works and operates, which implies ‘in the present’. Yet the archives do provide evidence of industry, and if you’re lucky that evidence will be preserved so that you can understand how that industry worked when it was in operation.
IAM has obviously given thought to this. As Michele Hilmes notes in her interview, from the moment film, media and related studies began we’ve been reflecting on industry, even if we haven’t always thought of it as such. Matthew Freeman also makes an argument that historicising the media industries allows researchers to fully understand the origins and historical contexts of seemingly new trends in the media industries.
I agree with both these perspectives, and would perhaps add that the relationship between the modern media industries and historical media industries goes both ways. Just as our understanding of media trends is enriched by tracing their history, our understanding of that history is shaped by the current context we live in.
Historians have to be cognisant of the ways that our culture implicitly, and almost imperceptibly, curates the past. Nowhere is this more evident than in the process of researching in archives, where only those facets of the media that have survived and been archived are available to researchers. The finances and resources required to archive that material is distributed according to the priorities and policies of the archives and their funding bodies or stakeholders. Archiving is an industry, too, after all.
As an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award student, I have the fortune to work with the Special Collections department of the BFI National Archive for my research into the history of the ITV regional franchise model, using the (now defunct) company Southern Television as a case study. I not only engage with archival material for information; I am in the process of structuring and cataloguing a collection of documents spanning from the late 1950s to the early 1980s – authoring the history of Southern Television in more ways than one.
Although I only have one single historical case study and one equivalent archive collection under my care, the feelings of responsibility and accountability can be overwhelming sometimes.
I’d had experience in archives before, having graduated with an MA in Film Studies and Film Archiving. However, I’d had very little experience of documentation – of paper (most of my training was in film and video formats). Equally, the projects I had worked on in the past had been as a student, a volunteer or an intern, and as such I’d had relatively little authority over the materials I was working with, and little experience of structuring an archival collection from start to finish.
When I came to the project, I had a few preconceptions about what I would study. I thought the value of the Southern Television collection lay in its ability to fill in the gaps left by those programmes that are now missing. Media archivists and media academics are both gluttons for punishment, in that we tend to be drawn to the media that we have never seen, and will likely never see. In lieu of recordings from the 1950s and 1960s, I assumed that programme development, scripts and marketing would enable analysis of the company’s programmes.
However, it was not that easy. The more I delved into the documents, the more apparent it became that producing television is not a very neat process. When you consider the amount of paperwork a company generates, it is not surprising that its paper archive is every bit as chaotic as email inboxes are now. Thousands of memoranda were typed every day, circulated on thin paper while the even thinner carbon copies were shoved into folders by overworked, underpaid administrators. The huge amounts of memoranda, letters, minutes, contracts and other forms of correspondence and administration dwarf the number of scripts or other forms of creative work.
Most researchers accessing archival collections are searching for discrete items within the archive: a recording, a script, a piece of technology. However, my project requires me to have a comprehensive understanding of the entire collection, which takes a lot of time. I needed to find a way to make historical research and archiving work cohere. Shifting my focus toward the industrial processes that happened behind the television set – the policies, infrastructures, and production practices of Southern Television and ITV – allowed me to do so. It also allowed me to appreciate the collection for what it is: a record of everyday life in the television industry. Appreciating the nature of the archive turned out to be far more fruitful than sifting for the supposed ‘gold standard’ of archival evidence, those elusive and rare scripts or records of missing programmes.
Unfortunately, the practicalities and legalities involved in archiving the media means that most academic researchers do not have the privilege of wholesale access to the many varied recordings, documentation or other artefacts of the industry surrounding them. Access is limited to those materials that have been dutifully conserved or preserved, in order to safeguard them. Access is also often limited to a certain number of documents or recordings, for the same reason. My project is therefore a privilege, and a welcome opportunity to develop my skills as an archivist while critically considering the entirety of the material that I archive.
None of this would be possible without the spirit of collaboration that surrounds my project, and I think that collaboration is an important way of framing all media industry research. Academics may feel that historical media industry research is too difficult to achieve, because film or a programme is missing. Equally, some may feel that historical paperwork is only supplementary or secondary to ‘the media’. However, through understanding the industries that created the media – not just the individual creators and their creations – we can begin to understand the value in all the collections that reside within the archives.
Elinor Groom is a PhD Candidate in Culture, Film and Media at the University of Nottingham. More about her research into Central Television can be found at kineartefacts.com.