Future Histories

'Future Histories – making available and constructing post-70s women's/feminist film histories and problems of digital media.

I introduced the Film & Video Distribution Database (an AHRC Resource Enhancement project, 2005-2008) which came out of a research project looking at how the 'distribution' link affects and shapes our moving image culture and took the UK 'independent' sector of the 1966-2000 as a case study. Among the distributors studied were Cinema of Women (COW), Circles (both spanning the 1980s) and Cinenova (set up in 1991 as a successor to Circles and still in existence), and a substantial amount of material from these women's distributors is included in the database, which will hopefully go live in the second half of 2010 at fv-distribution-database.ac.uk

The database has two datasets:
(1) Documents: scans of original documents, correspondence from, to and about the distributors. Keyword searches give a bespoke bibliographical listing of all documents relating to the search term, which contains links to the original documents.
(2) Events: chronological narrative entries drawn from the documents. Keyword searches on this dataset produces bespoke chronologies, which are fully referenced and contain links through to the original source documents.
The database allows the researcher to browse the history, but also probe deeper into particular aspects. The same 'event' entry or document will also appear in various searches so that the database starts to show the complex relationships that exist between funders, distributors, other organisations and initiatives that shape our film culture.

There were two reasons for doing the database:
(1) We had scanned all the material as part of an earlier project for ease of access and reference and hence had accumulated a huge off-line research resource which we thought might of interest to other researchers, especially as the original material was highly dispersed and difficult to track down.
(2) It's a recent, complex, multi-faceted and contested area of our moving image history, and challenging to write up into 'a' history. The availability of the original material would allow other researchers to interrogate and add to our findings as well as pursue other related interests.

BUT we discovered early on that there are *enormous* challenges to producing a digital resource:
1. Unless there is a very specific finite collection of material, eg a journal publication run, then there is still a process of selection in terms of the material included in the resource, and one that has been inevitably shaped by our concerns with distribution.
2. How meaningful any user search is will be dependent on how you meta-tag the documents and entries in the datasets. The alternative is optical character recognition. We specifically wanted to preserve the original look of the documents, plus at the time OCR was only 80-90% reliable which would have necessitated every document being proof read and corrected which would have raised the costs of the project considerably.
3. Doing a digitisation project is *hugely* resource intensive, and limited the amount of material we were able to get on to the database in the award period. The FVDD was specifically designed to be expandable, added to as an ongoing process, but the initial funded project was planned/costed as a 2 year project and quickly expanded to 3 years.
4. We had to devise a digital rights management process, design a contract, work out a previewing procedure that would keep rights holders happy but not involve them in a hugely time consuming commitment. On the whole rights holders have been very positive and cooperative and we have signed contracts from the Lux, the Arts Council, Cinenova, the British Film Institute, and Film London.

And producing a digital resource is only half the challenge. There is little point in producing such a resource unless it remains available, ie is sustainable, both in technological terms and in terms of the general maintenance of the resource, such as keeping the user interface contemporary, ensuring it appears 'updated' so that users trust it to be accurate. The other big issue is making sure the resource gets used, and this relates to making it 'visible' and 'findable', and increasingly in the current research funding climate, extending its user base beyond academia.

There are various possible solutions to these two issues, such as:
1. chasing further funding!
2. linking to/collaborating with other related resources which we did through a Future Histories of the Moving Image Research Network (also AHRC funded) – see www.futurehistories.net – to build visibility and access to the resource via multiple routes.
3. setting up a portal (or joining one) of similar projects
4. undertaking serious/extensive user development/marketing
5. finding a strong/committed institutional host
6. drawing on volunteer or grass-roots activism to help support and develop the resource.

Usually it requires a combination of approaches, but our overwhelming finding was that sustainability is integrally connected with the resource being visible and getting used. If the resource proves useful to a sufficiently large constituency, then there is the political will to ensure that it remains available which can in turn function to mobilise resources.

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