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.

A Day at the Archives… The German National Archive (Bundesarchiv) in Berlin

Tobias Hochscherf and Roel Vande Winkel

26 September 2017


Germans really believe that the early bird catches the worm. This, at least, is our impression. Having been to the Bundesarchiv (Federal Archive) on countless occasions, we’ve never managed to be there first, getting the prestigious locker key number one. And we’ve tried, believe us! Last June we met in Berlin Mitte for a quick coffee at 7:00 am and took the S-Bahn to Lichterfelde West on time for the opening of the archive … only to find out that many others were already waiting in front of the massive steel gates of the former garrison in which the Berlin branch of the national archive is located.

Apropos location, the place of the national archives alone breathes history. Whereas some archives were purpose-built to accommodate the various materials, the national archives in Berlin-Lichterfelde [link] seem rather provisionally located at a military garrison that could well be regarded a monument about 20th century German history. Built from 1873 to 1878 for Prussian cadets next to a newly designed bourgeois neighbourhood for officers and their families, the barracks were later used by the Leibstandarte-SS “Adolf Hitler”, the German dictator’s personal bodyguards during the Third Reich. During the “Night of the Long Knives”, several murders were committed within the military compound to eliminate SA men.

After the war, the barracks were then used by American troops who renamed the place as Andrews Barracks [link]. Throughout the entire complex, this problematic heritage could well be seen, including the exercise yard, SS-Statues that were concealed by concrete but are still at the entrance gate, and what looks suspiciously like Übermensch-statues at the gates to an enormous swimming pool one passes on the way from the main gate to the reading room of the archive. The people who decided to turn this old garrison – which was built to wage war – into an archive ought to be complimented for this decision. Right where some atrocities of the 20th century were planned, people are now able to study even the dark moments of German and European history. The site of the archive thereby also represents a modern-day democratic Germany.

It is somewhat odd to be reminded of what has happened at exactly this location through the years under Nazi rule after walking down from S-Bahn station Lichterfelde through the leafy and peaceful neighbourhood with its many stunning villas, parks and children’s playgrounds. The area does not really feel like being somewhere in the German capital but rather like staying at a small affluent town.

During busy days at the archive – looking through the maximum allowance of 50 files a day – it’s good to go for a walk. There’s plenty to see for film historians nearby, including the grave of German film star Renate Müller, who fell out of grace with the Nazis and was under constant surveillance by the Gestapo prior to her sudden death in 1937 (the circumstances of which are still unknown), or the former houses of the Jewish-German television entertainer Hans Rosenthal, the actor Götz George (son of Heinrich George) or the industrialist Werner von Siemens.

But coming back to the archives, such institutions are of course somewhat linked to national character traits. We have visited many other invaluable archives for media historians, including the lovely BBC written archives centre in Caversham, Berkshire (if you haven’t been there before: GO!), the National Archives at Kew and others. Yet no other place is quite like the Bundesarchiv. It is very German – in a good and a bad way. The online database and tool for ordering documents INVENIO is bureaucratic and not really self-explanatory [link]. Some members of staff may seem distant, but they are very helpful. Never try to enter the reading room with your coat on or bringing a backpack (which is generally true for all libraries in Germany and Austria). Some people have tried and what followed wasn’t really something you folks want to try! And always remember: don’t take pictures at a desk without the corresponding sign – it doesn’t matter who you are or what you are in fact doing at the archive. There are no exceptions.

Yet, there is something we love about the archive, something the archive shares with Berlin: its makeshift atmosphere. You can bring your own mobile phones or tablets to take pictures, the mundane locker room looks like a forlorn train station somewhere in the remote parts of the USSR during the Cold War. Even the prices of the instant coffee machine seem to be from 1989. Yet you find the most interesting people there, going for a walk outside or a coffee. Scholars of audio-visual media and history, holocaust survivors researching their family history, pensioners trying to find information about their former companies or family homes, etc. Everyone seems to have the same shining eyes, being fascinated by piecing together information from original archival documents to make sense of their history(ies). Like Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson during their adventures, they are beguiled by what they have found or – like academic gold diggers to use another image – by what they might find soon. They all feel the excitement when they open up hitherto closed files or personal records, helping them to understand what has happened. The Bundesarchiv really is a treasure trove for researchers – one of the archives where academics and the general public can get access to documents almost without restrictions. Everyone who has ever received documents in which some government officials or lawyers redacted lengthy passages, will be happy to see that this is generally not the case at the German national archives.

Given the wealth of information, the Bundesarchiv’s pilot project to take pictures of documents with your own devices is ever more welcome. In the past, users had to order photocopies of documents which arrived a few weeks later by post. Although the cost was – compared to other national archives – quite reasonable, extensive research could still amount to considerable sums of money. Certainly an investment into one’s future – but nevertheless not easy for all. This was a problem especially to those who could not rely on the generous support of research institutions or other sources of funding, including many early-career researchers and pensioners. Under the regulations of the current pilot project, costs can be kept at a minimum. There are, however, restrictions on documents related to individuals: those documents can be photocopied, but not photographed. The logic escapes us. There must be something odd about German privacy/data legislation.

If you plan a trip to the Bundesarchiv, order all documents at least a day before. The use is free of charge and you may bring a pencil, a laptop or mobile electronic devices. The holdings are massive, including, for media scholars, the surviving documents of Goebbels’ ministry of propaganda, of Ufa and the other German film companies from the Weimar Republic and the Nazi era or the German Democratic Republic’s DEFA. The archive is open from 8 to 7 during regular workdays, except for Friday, when it closes at 4. It is closed on Sundays and national holidays. Nota bene: if you are interested in the Bundesarchiv’s holding of films and publications about films, you should go the Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv, which will move to Lichterfelde eventually, but is currently still in the centre of Berlin, at Fehrbellinerplatz. In comparison to the Bundesarchiv in Lichterfelde, the Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv is much more formal. Part of the building at Fehrbelliner Platz is inhabited by a branch of the Bundesnetzagentur (Federal Network Agency) that regulates telecommunications as well as electricity, gas, post and railway markets in Germany. Because of security concerns, access is very restrictive and you are only allowed into the building by appointment. Perhaps this will change when all Berlin branches of the archives will be moved to Lichterfelde. Let’s hope so.

Please send us a message and a photograph if you are ever able to beat the Germans in getting locker key number one for a day at the archive!

Tobias Hochscherf and Roel Vande Winkel are both members of the IAMHIST council. They are working on various themes relating to Third Reich cinema for some time. While they usually collaborate through skype and other means of online communication, they welcome the opportunity to meet face-to-face when going to archives. Tobias is professor for audiovisual media at the University of Applied Sciences Kiel and the University of Flensburg. Roel is professor of film & TV studies at the LUCA School of Arts in Brussels and the University of Leuven, Belgium.

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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