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.


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