Traversing the Scales of Archival Research

Cinema Journal Teaching Dossier
Teaching with Primary Sources Vol 4(3) Martin L. Johnson
Catholic University of America

For most of its history, the cinema was researched and taught as a medium of grandiose scale. Histories of Hollywood contended with histories of international art cinema, with studies of national cinema struggling for recognition. Film archives, whether they were set up to promote corporate or state interests, repeated this logic, making it difficult for researchers, let alone undergraduate students, to access the places where the movies that mattered, or so it was assumed, were kept. But since the early 1990s, scholars have inaugurated studies of cinema that take place on different scales, with local studies, in particular, giving heft and depth to the study of an experience that was once assumed to be ephemeral. Richard Maltby has argued that new research methodologies and an openness to other disciplines has constituted a “new cinema history” which is no longer a history of films, but instead of the experience of cinema.

Although this shift in the study of cinema has been transformative for exhibition studies, it has been an even more profound development for the teaching of film history. Film history classes once offered students the opportunity to see 16mm prints that were otherwise inaccessible, giving them new experiences, but not the capacity to create new knowledge. Now that films are more accessible, well-curated programs are no longer the appeals in themselves that they once were. But, moving the location of film history from Hollywood and its archives to the many other sites where film experiences occur makes it possible for students to make substantive contributions to the “new cinema history,” no matter where they live or what their previous background in film history might be.

In this essay, I discuss my experience using local studies, and local archival material, in the classroom. I focus on a single course, “Histories of Moviegoing: Audiences, Exhibitors, and Cultures of Fandom,” I have taught at three institutions, which has been continually revised to accommodate new projects that take advantage of local archives and new digital primary sources. I am currently teaching this course, which focuses on the American experience of cinema from 1895 to the present, but welcomes international perspectives, at The Catholic University of America, but I think the application of archival methods to a historical survey course can be used in any number of classroom settings. Archives both expand the territory of what we know about the history of the cinema, and populate the map of what is already known.

Student-sourced research projects

Because the course is organized chronologically, the opening weeks center on the emergence of the cinema and the development of movie culture in the first decades of cinema. The scholarship on this period is exceptionally detailed and rich, in part because the questions it asks about the cinema’s origins and essences are foundational to the field. In addition, there is an immense amount of primary source material available to students, making it a suitable for student-sourced research projects that emphasize the diversity of cinema cultures during this early period.

In earlier iterations of the class, I asked students to closely read advertisements, articles, movie theater programs, and other primary source material culled from research on the subject. While I initially collected this material in archives, much of it now can be found online, including the collections of the Media History Digital Library and commercial newspaper archives such as In this case, they were given one item, which they analyzed and discussed in groups. Rather than ask students to look at these documents to confirm what they know from other readings, I instead encourage them to identify things that are unfamiliar. As a result, when they look closely at these documents, such as a full-page advertisement for the opening of the first purpose-built movie theater in a small town in Iowa, they notice emphases on sanitation and electricity, not just upcoming programs, which leads them to ask how these seemingly incidental offerings connect to the cinema’s arrival as a permanent institution in the community.

More recently, I have turned to asking students to complete crowd-sourced, or, as I term it, “student-sourced” research projects that convert primary source documents into data that they then analyze for more information about the cinema. For example, after coming across a newspaper in Texas that included advertisements and news stories on several movie theaters that opened—and closed—in 1906, I realized that such documents would help students understand the complexity of the cinema in what historians have long identified a pivotal year, the moment when the “cinema of attractions” fade and narrative cinema emerges. After pulling several dozen pages from an online newspaper database, I assigned each student a month, and asked them to research as much as possible about the films that were exhibited.

Within a week, my students had produced a database of every film that was shown in Palestine, Texas, in 1906, creating 152 exhibition records that identified detailed information about the films that were seen that year as well as the theaters that showed them. In the second stage of the project, students analyzed this data, learning that not all the films exhibited in 1906 were made that year, and that a plurality of the films shown that year were not made by American companies. Closer study revealed that one theater, uncertain that movies would be a sufficient attraction in themselves, introduced roller skating in the summer months. After gathering and analyzing this data, students presented and discussed their findings with the class, giving students the first taste of the power archival research has to illuminate and complicate what we think we know about a particular period.

Pre-selecting archival material exposes students to primary source research and ensures that they will discover relevant material quickly. Furthermore, by making the project collaborative students have a shared investment in completing the task on time and with accuracy. Although these assignments take some time to prepare, they serve as a valuable introduction to how archives can both confront and confirm understandings of the subject and structure of film history.

Working with archival collections

Offering students the opportunity to do their own exploration allows them to experience moments of archival discovery and frustration that are essential to film historiography and methodology. In “Histories of Moviegoing,” I have added a trip to the university archives, and ask students to focus on film-related collections. Although not all university archives contain film and media history related material, many do, from home movie collections of former professors to college sports film. At Catholic, I have benefited from using the collection of United States Catholic Bishops Office of Film and Broadcasting, which was acquired in 2009. Within this collection are the archives of the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures (NCOMP), the successor organization to the National Legion of Decency, an ecumenical film reviewing office established in 1933. In the 1930s and 1940s, the organization had a prominent voice in the film industry and, for a time, had what was in effect prior review of the motion picture industry, reviewing scripts and screening films before their release to the public. After a series of court decisions in the 1950s, which made the Legion’s strategies of boycotts and censorship more difficult to hold up, the organization returned to the Catholic fold, renaming itself in 1964 the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures.

In my class, students visit the archive to review the collection, which contains thousands of folders, each one containing material related to an individual film title. Even after NCOMP lost its ability to review films before their release, the organization dutifully evaluated early screenings of the film, most of which were held in New York. The review files contain handwritten and typed evaluations of the films by priests and educators, posters, publicity stills, press clippings, and, on occasion, letters from directors and others involved in the production of the film. At present, much of this material is “hidden,” as the finding aid just lists the titles of the folders, not the treasures contained within. In my class, students write an item-level description of the contents of one of 5,000 folders in the collection, identifying the name, publication date, and other relevant information. These documents are then shared with the archive, and later passed on to other researchers. In a future stage of this project, these item-level finding aids will placed online, and students will be able to use the finding aids to learn more about how the organization functioned.

By looking closely at these folders, which I assess and assign based on a theme, my students find both traces of Hollywood film culture, and, given that the vast majority of my students are Catholic, perspectives on these films that resonate with their own familial and religious experiences. While this ongoing collaborative research project is, in certain ways, dependent on a particularly significant collection on my campus, there are many similar archives, both digital and physical, that could benefit from such an approach.

Researching film history from below

Recent developments in how film history is researched and written have done more than shift the historiographic and methodological terrain for scholars. The “new cinema history” also more readily accommodates student-centered teaching models in which primary source research plays a critical role in class assignments. The assignments discussed above lay the groundwork for students to conduct their own original research projects. Digitized newspapers, oral history interviews, participant-observation ethnographic research and archival research complement methodologies and sources more commonly used in other film and media studies classes, which encourages students to contemplate the relationship between what they want to research and how they go about doing so.

Already, there are dozens of film and media historians using resources like those described here in the classroom. In the future, I would like to see more collaboration between classes in different locations, giving students the opportunity to see their work as a shared endeavor, teaching all of us more about the diversity of experiences in the first century of the cinema, and the possibilities for research as the medium transforms before our eyes.


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