Three Archives in two Weeks: Where is Digitisation?

Sigrun Lehnert, Hamburg

20 September 2018

In February this year, I visited three archives within two weeks: The Centre National de l’Audiovisuel (CNA) in Dudelange, Luxembourg, the Bundesarchiv in Koblenz, Germany, and the Deutsches Rundfunkarchiv (DRA) in Potsdam-Babelsberg, close to Berlin, Germany. At the CNA, I tried to find out something about the newsreel collection of Blick in die Welt they keep there (French-influenced newsreel, produced from 1945 to 1986/1987), and about the working processes at a national archive regarding digitisation. At the Bundesarchiv in Koblenz, I did two days of research on production documents from the production company of Blick in die Welt (that was only possible directly at the archive). And finally, on the following Monday, 12 February 2018, I attended a workshop on digitisation in media archives[1] – including a guided tour at the DRA in Babelsberg. The visit of the archive was highly interesting, and I would like to start with some remarkable details on digital supported exploitation of archival material.

At first, our workshop group listened to an informative talk by Julia Weber, who is responsible for rights and licenses at DRA. We learned that DRA in Babelsberg stored all TV and radio material of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR). The collection is used by journalists and film makers, but also by cultural organisations, museums, universities, and so on.2 Since 2012, the DRA has followed a new strategy for digital exploitation of archival material. So far, the half of all the programme hours have been digitised (22,000 hours). By 2020, the digitisation for all TV shows should be finished. It would take some more time for including all radio material as well, we were told. The most important advantage is that the digitised material could be taken over in a central data base (“Fernsehdatenbank”, FESAD). Ms Weber showed us that files can be called directly from the database. This way, all details about the piece can then easily be documented, e.g. original sound, verbal presentation, key frames. However, the research in FESAD is only possible at the archive, and not online.

On the guided tour, I was impressed about the amount of saved material from 1945 to 1991. But we were told that the gaps were immense, and only 35,000 programme hours were recorded. The rest must be regarded as lost – as due to material shortage the tapes were overwritten again and again. Our workshop group also visited the storage rooms: Audio magnet tapes are stored at a constant temperature of 16 degrees Celsius and 40-50 percent room humidity. Astonishingly, the DRA stores 450,000 tapes with sound, radio plays, and verbal pieces, which are rarely used so far! In the room for coloured film it was freezing cold because the films are preserved by constant 4 degrees below zero.

Most impressive was the glimpse at the technological devices for the digitisation process. The film scanner is able to digitise 16mm and 35mm film formats with a resolution of 5K (5120 × 2880 pixels). The digitisation of a 90-minute film takes two days (the eight-fold time!). The correction of colour is usually done during the digitising process and so the result depends highly on the skills of the staff member responsible for film technology. Mostly, it is a matter of consideration to decide which ‘look’ should be preserved for keeping it as authentic as possible after the digitisation process, we were told.

At the CNA, the digitisation of films has been outsourced so far. The CNA collects all Luxembourg television and film productions. When I asked how the modern presentation technology in cinemas and television effects the archiving, I learned that this is a big problem for the CNA, as the amount of digital data increases a lot. In February 2018, a new database system has been set up for an improved saving of data, and finally, for providing them online to public users. The CNA has a cinema and shows current films which are provided as digital files. The archive films are not presented as a curated film programme. I think that is a pity, as the public doesn’t get to know which historical films CNA stores. CNA preserves a great amount of private amateur films. After a private film collection is offered, it will be examined, and assessed whether it is worth being preserved. If so, the 8 mm films stay for some days in a special room at a temperature of five degrees and are then brought to the film department. During the viewing, the responsible staff member notes down sound or colour and a short content description. Following this, all notes are typed in a database. I was offered the chance to take a look in the storage rooms and learned that the space is almost fully utilised. From the beginning, the building did not have enough space, I was told.

But initially, I came to CNA as I heard by chance that they have newsreels which don’t belong to their collection focus and so they don’t want or need them. As the Blick in die Welt is a newsreel production which is extremely underexplored,[2] I got in touch with the head of film collection and asked her for some more details. But, I was informed that they don’t knew anything about the reels (the amount, edition numbers, content, nor were it came from), and the collection was not exploited. If I wanted to know more about the reels, I could come over to Luxembourg to work on the inventory. As I recognised by a photo the CNA sent me, the collection comprised not only the Blick in die Welt, but also the UfaWochenschau (see fig.4). I asked the head of Film- und Fernsehmuseum Hamburg e.V., if he was interested to take on reels of Ufa-Wochenschau[3] and Blick in die Welt with Hamburg-related topics. He confirmed that he was, and I travelled to Luxembourg to make a list of the reels.

The reels were stored at a building on a former industrial site, which was about to be demolished as new housings should be built later this year. It turned out that they store over 400 reels in cans and boxes! I found around 150 reels of Blick in die Welt (1970-1973), around 260 editions of Ufa-Wochenschau (most of them 1962-1968) and around 20 reels of documentaries on special topics (probably from the newsreel production company), for example traffic or dancing. The boxes still carried the addresses of the cinemas they were delivered to, and the sender – the newsreel production company. Some boxes were not labelled, and we took them with us for a closer examination.

Back at the CNA film department, we tried to unroll the tapes. However we found out that two of the boxes just contained pieces with the opening title or the end credits of Ufa-Wochenschau. That is very interesting – possibly the cinemas did that cutting themselves, either for storing pieces in case the opening title was worn and needed replacement, or they sampled the newsreel films – maybe cut out ‘uninteresting’ stories and created their ‘own’ newsreel films by using the opening title and the end credit.[4] If this assumption is correct, it is not provable what the Luxembourg people in the 1950s to the 1970s could see from the German newsreels – which impression they got about Germany. Other reels in unlabelled boxes, I tried to watch and did research in the filmothek of Bundesarchiv to find out the edition number and production data. But unfortunately, the sound at the Steenbeck (see fig.) didn’t work. But the other day it should have been fixed. The problem with such editing tables is, that spare parts are quite rare. Anyway, I found out the topics and the numbers and gave the complete list of the newsreels Blick in die Welt and Ufa-Wochenschau to the head of film collection. The following day, I travelled to Koblenz to do some research in the Bundesarchiv about the production of the Blick in die Welt. Three months before the visit, I got in touch with the “Archivfachlicher Dienst” (archival service). I called and explained my research interests. Following this, I received an email with some very helpful hints on appropriate files. Additionally, I had a look at the online-research tool “Invenio” – but the results were not sufficient. In order to save time, I would highly recommend asking the cooperative archivists at the Bundesarchiv. I ordered the files at least two weeks before my trip to Koblenz – and they were all there in the reading room (“Lesesaal”). It was even possible to take photos (only when the file is marked with the special allowance) at special tables with pads for placing down the file properly. I have found out some really interesting details about the struggle of Blick in die Welt in competition with Neue Deutsche Wochenschau and Ufa-Wochenschau for public orders from the Federal government. It seems that until the 1970s the newsreel production companies didn’t fight so much against the competitor ‘television’, but fought against each other. Finally, I found some public orders from 1975/1976 (!) for producing short service films, e.g. on topics like: what to consider when buying a stereo system or booking a package tour. Young people should have been attracted by the newsreels as they still visited the cinemas – in contrary to elder generations, which preferred watching television in those days.

Back at home, I spoke to the head of the Film- und Fernsehmuseum Hamburg e.V. about the 400 newsreel boxes at the CNA in Luxembourg. But unfortunately, this amount was way too much for the museum. So, he asked another private archive and the professional film collector. He was interested in taking the whole collection, picking up the reels at his own cost, keeping them properly at dry rooms with the right room climate, and could even digitise the film material. As all rights are clarified, he was only interested in collecting for saving a piece of film heritage (and not using the films commercially). But in the end, the CNA decided not to give the newsreels to the private archive.  Considering that experience, I think that on the one hand state and national archives should cooperate more with private collectors – as archives are always short with space for original material and financial support for digitisation. On the other hand, a wide range of material is probably stored by private persons – inaccessible for anyone else.

[1] Workshop „speichern | orientieren | produzieren“, organised by the Fachgruppe Speicherkulturen (working group culture of storage), Studienkreis Rundfunk und Geschichte,  2 66 percent of the users are broadcasters, 20 percent even private persons.

[2] Because the rights have been bought by a private film production company and the films are not made accessible online or at the spot. 4 Foto taken by Paul Lesch.

[3] The rights for the Ufa-Wochenschau are with the Bundesarchiv/Transit.Film and are totally exploited, the content is known and available online at the filmothek of the Bundesarchiv.

[4] Neither the opening title nor the end of Ufa-Wochenschau carried an edition number or credits.

Dr. Sigrun Lehnert majored in Media Management (Master of Arts) in Hannover, Germany. Since 2010 Sigrun Lehnert is scientific assistant in Hamburg. Her dissertation project at the University of Hamburg was on “Wochenschau und Tagesschau in den 1950er Jahren” (German newsreel and early television news in the 1950s), supervised by Prof. Dr. Knut Hickethier. The following book has been published in 2013 by UVK, Konstanz. Her research fields are: film history, television history, documentary film, newsreels, archives and film heritage.


Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

Cinemas and Soldiers, 1914-1918: Reflections upon my doctoral research during the final year of centenary commemorations for the First World War

Chris Grosvenor, University of Exeter

29 July 2018

As I write this blog post, I am in the final stages of bringing together my doctoral thesis –‘Cinema on the Front Line: A History of Military Cinema Exhibition and Soldier Spectatorship during the First World War’. I began my PhD in September 2015, although I had actually started researching the topic of my thesis for my MA dissertation the year before, so in a sense, my research has from its inception been undertaken against the background of centenary commemorations for the First World War. It has been a long, challenging, but incredibly rewarding process, combining my interests in film history, military history and war studies to produce some 100,000 words on a subject which, from my perspective, has until this point lacked a comprehensive history and analysis within the discipline of Film Studies [1].

The fact that I have undertaken this research during the centenary period has proved to be hugely significant. More than the ample amount of First World War-related academic conferences, research networks and publications prompted by the beginning of the centenary in 2014, the history of the conflict – its significance, impact and legacy – will perhaps never again be as prevalent as it has been within our contemporary political and cultural environment, certainly not within my lifetime. It is my hope, therefore, that by accident rather than design, my research can contribute something hitherto missing from, not only our own academic field and discipline, but an internationally shared cultural history and ‘memory’ of the ‘Great War’, particularly as we leave this monumental milestone of the centenary of the conflict behind us in 2018. Indeed, even a century after the close of the conflict, I hope that research such as my own showcases the wealth of stories and histories that are still waiting to be discovered in the archives of the First World War.

Image 1: Two British soldiers standing beside a projector (most likely a Pathé 1913 model) c.1916. Courtesy of the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, University of Exeter. EXE BD 84481

So – what have you discovered then? – you’re probably asking. Fundamentally, my research outlines how cinema exhibition during the First World War did not begin and end with theatrical exhibition on the home front, but encapsulated a whole, largely forgotten, demographic of wartime spectators: British soldiers. From the domestic commercial venues where potential soldiers were targeted with cinematic recruitment propaganda in the hope that they would enlist, to the make-shift venues constructed for exhibition on the front line itself, and the appropriation of the medium within the context of soldier rehabilitation and recovery in military hospitals and convalescent camps, the cinema intersected with the average British soldier at practically every point of their military career. Painstaking research undertaken using official military documentation held by the National Archives has revealed the previously unacknowledged scope of cinemas established by different formations of the British Expeditionary Force – Armies, Corps, Divisions, Brigades – on the Western front between 1914 and 1918. Moreover, detailed information about front line exhibition practices, from film programmes to venues, equipment, finances and musical accompaniment shed further light on this unique instance of historical exhibition. Furthermore, careful examination of soldier diaries, letters and ‘trench publications’ held by institutions such as the Imperial War Museum, the Liddle Collection at the University of Leeds, and the BFI, has placed front and centre a fundamentally singular body of wartime spectatorship. Whilst cherishing the psychologically restorative powers of escapist comedies and dramas within the immediate environment of the front line – where ‘the grim realities of warfare are temporarily forgotten during the performance’ – I argue that soldiers also evolved to become intellectually discerning spectators in their own right, equipped to interpret, negotiate and ultimately deconstruct the artifice and manipulation of wartime propaganda and fictional films depicting the conflict, including major topical releases such as The Battle of the Somme (1916). [2] More generally, the diverse range of exhibition practices utilised for the entertainment of British soldiers either on the front line or at home – from films projected onto hospital war ceilings for the bed-bound wounded to shell-damaged barns or huts within close proximity to the dangers of the front line trenches – evidences the fact that cinema exhibition for soldier spectators during the conflict was rife with variety, experimentation and unprecedented spectatorial encounters with the medium at this early juncture within the 20th century.

Image 2: Postcard of Larkhill Camp, Salisbury. The top of the ‘Military Cinema’ can just be seen on the right-hand side (white building). Author’s Collection.

At its core, however, it is the soldiers themselves who have come to reside as my primary focus of research. Indeed, despite the distance in time and supposed objectivity required of the historian, it is the stories of a generation of young men fighting and even dying for their country which have had the most impact upon me during these last four years. Whilst I sit in the Imperial War Museum’s research room holding a mud-stained and partly faded diary, it is impossible not to think of the man who held it one-hundred years ago. Turning the page, I may find some comment about how the antics of Charlie Chaplin or the familiar romance of a drama momentarily removed the soldier from his immediate war-torn and psychologically oppressive surroundings for the duration of the programme. He didn’t care that the ‘cinema’ he sat in was nothing more than a barn stocked with ‘empty petrol boxes’ or ‘old pieces of wood, all sizes and thicknesses, to take the place of tip-up seats’. [3] In these instances, the power of the medium as a morale-boosting, engaging and fundamentally escapist form of entertainment highlights the influence and impact of the medium during this unprecedented and horrendous conflict. It is no wonder then, that soldiers took the medium of the cinema with them from the civilian lives to the front line; for some, it was an absolute necessity for survival.

Image 3: Postcard depicting a column of British soldiers marching past a cinema, c.1916. Author’s Collection.

Whilst the specific objects of fandom or the popularity of certain genres may have changed, the fact that soldiers paid what little money they earned to visit a military-run cinema behind the lines, even in the most extraordinary of circumstances, underlines the same fundamental attraction of the medium that continues to engage audiences today in the 21st century. This, more than anything, has been one of the most important conclusions I have personally drawn during my research over the last four years – that the cinema’s social and cultural function can, in a certain sense, serve to bridge the gap in time between audiences of yesterday and today – a poignant, albeit simple reminder that these men were real people, with real lives and families, hopes and dreams, sacrificing all for their country and their fellow men in the trenches, who found in the medium of cinema a momentary respite from their anxieties and fears. More than ever, this notion should be maintained and safeguarded as we draw to the close of the centenary in 2018, with the war having now resolutely slipped from living memory to the memory of the historical archive.

[1] For some introductory material on the subject, as well as writing on the YMCAs provision of cinematic entertainment for soldiers during the First World War, see: Kevin Brownlow, The War, the West, and the Wilderness, (London: Secker and Warburg, 1979), pp. 44-47; J. G. Fuller, Troop Morale and Popular Culture in the British and Dominion Armies, 1914-1918 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), pp. 110-113; Emma Hanna, ‘Putting the Moral into Morale: YMCA Cinemas on the Western Front, 1914-1918’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Vol. 35, No. 4 (2015), pp. 615-630; Amanda Laugesen, ‘Forgetting their Troubles for a While: Australian Soldiers’ Experiences of Cinema during the First World War’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Vol. 35, No. 4 (2015), pp. 596-614. Of course, it is my hope that my research will offer the most comprehensive and detailed account of this historical practice.

[2] ‘Weekly Notes’, The Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly, 20 September 1917, p. 75.

[3] C. G. Lilley, ‘Back of the Front! A Description of Tommy’s Cinema Shows’, The Bioscope, 7 September 1916, p. xv.

Chris Grosvenor is a final-year PhD student at the University of Exeter, UK. His thesis – ‘Cinema on the Front Line’ – examines the role of the cinema as it intersected with the lives of those who served for Britain during the First World War, shining a light on a largely unacknowledged history within the discipline of Film Studies. More broadly, his research interests include silent cinema, British film history, exhibition studies and the work of silent comedian Charlie Chaplin.

Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.


How to prepare for your viva: 8 useful tips

Agata Frymus

21 June 2018

1: Read your thesis

No matter how many times you have done it before, reading your thesis a week or two before the viva is always a good idea. Although I have proofread my thesis several times before the submission, this time my focus shifted: rather than looking for spelling mistakes, typos and missing references, I concentrated on the quality of my argument. What are the research questions posed in each chapter? What are the main findings? And, most importantly, how could this work be improved?

To make sure I actively engaged with the ideas developed by the thesis, I highlighted some parts of the texts and made notes. I also produced a rather short document in which I summarised each of my eight chapters (as well as the introduction and conclusion) according to the following criteria:

  • Key arguments and findings
  • Methodology and scholarship used
  • Strengths
  • Weaknesses

Thinking about my work in those fairly broad terms helped me to understand how to explain it to those who might not be familiar with the specificity of my subject. Additionally, it enabled me to reflect on the potential shortcomings of the research I conducted, which proved instructive during the viva discussion. Although this might sound like a laborious process, let me assure you that it was not. I have spent about a week (if not less) reading the thesis and making notes, and it wasn’t even the only thing I was occupied by (which brings me to my next point).

Part of the table/ document I produced as I was re-reading my thesis

2: Don’t over prepare 

How long is one supposed to spend on viva preparation? Given the importance of the examination, you might be tempted to think that the longer the better, right? Well…not exactly. After all, everyone I talked to (see point 4) admitted they regretted spending too much time on the prep. Even though I have heard stories of PhDs devoting a month – or more –  solely to viva-related study, I decided to be sensible and spend no longer than two weeks on preparations. Two weeks in which my mind won’t be occupied by anything else but the viva. When I shared my plan with my supervisor, he deemed it extravagant. ‘How long do you need to read something?’, he asked, and I’m glad he did. The thing is, as a PhD student you have spent at least three years researching your topic. At this point, you are the expert in your chosen field; it is probably fair to assume that you do not need weeks and weeks of additional study. You have already done the groundwork. Be confident in your knowledge.

3: Think about the potential questions

One of the best things you can do to maximize your chances of a confident viva performance is to consider the potential viva questions and the way in which you could approach them. There are plenty of websites that provide you with sample discussion points that are likely to be raised by your examiners and most of them are broad enough to be applicable to your thesis, regardless of the specificity of your topic. I used these and these as starting points. Considering the questions in advance will add to your confidence as you will be less likely to be taken by surprise. If you do, however, end up being mildly shocked by the question asked by the examiner, do not panic. It is perfectly fine to take some time to gather your thoughts, or even write main points down on a piece of paper if the question is more complex.

Some of the questions I have been asked at the beginning of my viva included:

  1. Why have you chosen these particular stars as your case studies? What sparked your interest in them?
  2. How did you go about conducting your research?
  3. What are the differences between researching print copies of fan magazines and the online/ digitised versions?

Most of the questions, however, related to specific paragraphs and passages from my thesis. The worksheet I produced as part of the prep process (see point 1), enabled me to anticipate criticism and answer such questions without feeling like I’m losing my ground.

You don’t necessarily need to write your answers down either: one of my friends told me they went on long walks during which their pondered the potential discussion points and subsequent responses.

4: Talk to people who have passed their viva

The views expressed by those who have successfully passed their viva seemed to share a similar tone: it’s nothing to worry about, it’s nowhere as scary as you think it will be, it will be fine, and so on. This, in itself, is quite reassuring. Talking to friends and colleagues about their experiences, however, might give you some interesting insights too. I really dreaded questions relating to the critical choices I made in the process of compiling my thesis: why have I chosen this star/ fan magazine, and not a different one? How should I explain something that was, in many respects, not only an analytical, but also a personal choice? What I understood as a result of those conversations was that simple, honest answers (‘these specific fan magazines are easily available in the digital form and are searchable’/ ‘Pola Negri has something of a cult status in Poland, where I come from’) are often the best ones.

5: Arrange a mock viva

It’s a truism, I know, but confidence is key. Even if you have conducted high quality research, your points will not come across particularly strong if you mumble or are not able to express yourself clearly. Before presenting any paper or a lecture I always, always make sure I practice my presentation in front of friends, family members or anyone who is willing to listen. This gives me a better understanding of how I will behave under pressure, because a certain amount of stress is always there, no matter if I present in front of my boyfriend or an academic audience of 30.

Therefore, I think it is crucial to run a mock viva as part of one’s preparation. It will not always increase your confidence at the actual thing, but it will also give you some useful feedback regarding your answers and performance. For example, my mock viva – which I organised with a fellow PhD student and my supervisor as examiners – made me realise that I need to be more explicit when talking about my methodology, starting with more general terms. Although I have explained the importance of post-colonialism, critical race studies and feminism in structuring my approach, I failed to mention gender and film studies, which are much broader and probably more important categories. Secondly, the feedback I received as the result of this exercise boosted my confidence. Despite the fact my heart was racing/ my hands were shaking/ I felt very anxious, neither of my mock examiners noticed any of it. At the end, the mock examination turned out to be much more stressful than the real one!

Alternatively, you can arrange a mock viva with friends, or even video record your answers on your phone. Whilst watching yourself might sound painful, it could show you that you never come across as bad as you think you do. It’s scientifically proven.

6: Know your examiners

I find interviews/ examinations/ any form of discussion less threatening if I have met the person doing the questioning. This might not work as effectively for everyone, but somehow meeting one of the examiners in person beforehand – even if that meant simply knowing their tone of voice and general demeanour – made me feel much more confident in myself. If you feel the same way, I would suggest you try to meet your examiners in an informal setting. They will probably be fine with a coffee sometime before the viva, as long as you explain your reasoning and stay away from discussing your PhD and the viva itself.

7: Relax

My viva took place on Tuesday. I spent the last couple of days leading too it doing absolutely nothing in terms of preparation, assuming, rather correctly, that it will achieve little more than stress me out.  I went to see a friend over the weekend (we made vegan burritos) and stayed at another friends’ house the night before, watching First Dates. I know that people deal with stress differently, but for me, preparing earlier and then taking my mind off the viva was the best thing I could do. Have a bath/ go on a hike/ exercise the night before; whatever works.


8: And finally… Enjoy it!

The viva is a rare opportunity to discuss your research with two people who not only have read your thesis in its entirety, but who are also likely to be specialists in your field. Make the most of the opportunity it offers, and enjoy yourself as you do; after all, you produced a valuable piece of work and there is no reason why you should not feel happy about it.

Agata Frymus is a Marie Skłodowska Curie post-doctoral fellow at University of Ghent, Belgium, where she works on black cinemagoing in the 1920s and 1930s.​ Her main research interests include silent film, classical Hollywood and the history of gender and race representations in American culture. Agata’s work has been published in Celebrity Studies JournalEarly Popular Visual Culture and the ​Historical Journal of  Radio, Film and Television.

Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

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