The State of Preservation, 2017

Pictured: Bryony Dixon and Mike Mashon. Photo by Pamela Gentile

Mike Mashon of the Library of Congress
Interview by Marilyn Ferdinand

Silent films, TV shows, screwball comedies, instructional films—they’re all welcome at the Library of Congress, the de facto national library of the United States. Mike Mashon, head of the library’s Moving Image Section, is the person who oversees the collection, preservation, and protection of our moving image heritage. With about 1.4 million moving image items in the collection, it’s a big job. As a self-admitted “mid-level government bureaucrat,” Mashon devotes himself mainly to administrative duties, but he is passionate about making the library’s holdings available to a worldwide audience, particularly online.

How do moving image items usually come into the library?
There are typically two paths: copyright deposit and by going out and acquiring material. We are the copyright library of the U.S., and moving image material registered for copyright has a permanent place in the national collection. We do actively acquire some of the larger collections, but there are smaller ones as well, not always of well-known figures. There are plenty of people, like film collectors, who have materials they want to give us. There are also acquisition officers within the Library of Congress who work with us to acquire material from overseas.

We’re fortunate to have a modest budget for purchasing collections. Maybe a decade ago, there was a gentleman named J. Fred MacDonald who operated a really successful stock footage house in Chicago. I had been talking to Fred for years and years, and finally the time was right—he wanted to get out of the footage business, and we had some money. So we purchased about forty thousand reels of film, really interesting material: television shows that we didn’t have in the collection, newsreels that were pitched specifically for African-American audiences. The J. Fred MacDonald Collection is the gift that keeps on giving.

What is the library’s role in preservation and restoration?
The thing that separates us from a lot of other archives is that we have our own preservation budget. I’ve got a film preservation laboratory, a video laboratory, and an audio laboratory, so we do all our own work. Sound rerecording and color preservation are the only things we have to send out. We’ve got about 140 million feet of nitrate, and if we see something’s really deteriorated, we try to get it up to the laboratory as quickly as we can. There’s this constant stream of preservation that’s going through our laboratory, taking nitrate, typically, and making a new safety film copy.

Every once in a while, a film lends itself to restoration. For us, restoration is finding multiple elements, bringing them all together, either doing photochemical preservation or scanning and outputting film. Not everything lends itself to restoration. One film that did was a feature documentary from 1915 called On the Firing Line with the Germans, by Wilbur H. Durborough and Irving Ries. We used the best surviving scenes from among thirty-two reels of nitrate film, nine reels of paper print fragments, and supplemental 35mm film from the National Archives and assembled the digital files for the completed version. It is now one of the films streaming on our Now See Hear! blog.

I just watched a delightful 1926 film on that blog, The Midnight Message.
I was just talking to Stephen Horne, who composed and played the new score for that film. It’s part of the Silent Film Project, whose goal is to catalog, digitally preserve, and ensure the availability of silent and certain sound-era films for public viewing and research. I’m really looking forward to making more silent films accessible online, as many with scores as we can manage. In the past year and a half, we have scanned almost one hundred silent features and well over two hundred shorts, newsreels, and other kinds of material. Among them is a short from 1928 called Coney Island, New York’s Playground. From 1929, we have a home movie of Mary Pickford and twenty-five beauty contest winners who got to spend the day with her when she was shooting Coquette. We have both the sound and silent versions of Coquette in our collection. From around 1920, there’s an informational film called A Trip Thru a Modern Bottling Plant. We’re very fortunate to be working with collectors on this project.

The thing that’s slowed us down is metadata to make the films usable, which may be nothing more than the title, “16mm,” “silent.” Maybe a release date, maybe not, to enhance the record. One I keep using is Carbon Arc Demo. That’s a made-up title that indicates the film demonstrates the uses of a carbon arc projector. I don’t see any credits, I don’t even see a date, but I do see it was a 16mm color composite positive. That’s all we know right now. You can have a very minimal record, but the more we can provide in the cataloging record, the more footholds there are for the user.

How do you use digital technology now and how will you use it in the future?
We don’t have a very large digital department, but when we decide that we’re really going to bear down on something digitally, we have various pieces of software to work with. One project, part of the festival’s Amazing Tales program this year, the Edison Kinetophone films, an early attempt by Thomas Edison to sync wax cylinder recordings with film. The Thomas Edison National Historical Park made recordings from the cylinders and we were able to marry them to the film. It would have been pretty much impossible before digital because of variations in the speeds of the films and the cylinders and multiple takes. My colleague, George Willeman, did all of this work in Final Cut Pro.

What is your agenda for making more films accessible?
We’ve always rather prided ourselves on the accessibility of our collection. From the origins of this division in 1970 and, even before that, qualified researchers could come to the research center on Capitol Hill and watch movies, now they are digital files or 35mm prints for things we haven’t digitized.

But the thing that excites me about digital is that it gives us the possibility of making our collections available online around the world. This is my all-consuming goal as the head of the moving image section; genuinely more than anything else in my career, this is what motivates. Why collect this material if you can’t make it available?