A couple of years back, the National Archives Motion Picture Preservation Lab started seeing an uptick in researcher reference requests for one specific series of films: 306-LSS, a group of more than 400 black and white reels of stock footage that ended up in the hands of the United States Information Agency (USIA). As the months passed, our researchers made their way through nearly all of the reels, and they are now available to everyone in the National Archives Catalog!
Footage in the 306-LSS series covers locations around the country, including Grand Coulee, Washington. (Still from 306-LSS-900)
Researcher Bonnie Rowan first noticed the series in an old inventory book in the research room. There was absolutely no descriptive information about the series beyond the title “Library Stock Shots,” and she was intrigued both by the size of the series and the fact that it was all 35mm and likely of high quality. A couple of older viewing copies showed that the content might be interesting, too. Rowan put in her first digitization request, and the reels began showing up in the Lab. Many of the other regular researchers joined in, and eventually the Lab was seeing 30 or more reels come through each month. (Typically, the lab digitizes 100-130 reels a month in response to researcher requests.)
Stills show a small slice of the footage in 306-LSS. Click on the images to view in a larger window.
During the digitization process, Lab staff saw that the footage was beautifully shot, and originated largely from government productions of the 1930s and 1940s. Slates on a sizable portion of the reels showed the names Lorentz and Crosby, which we recognized as belonging to the acclaimed director Pare Lorentz and his primary cameraman Floyd Crosby. When we prepped the films for digitization, we noticed the film leaders had a printed-in “SOURCE” notation, identifying a government agency, such as the Office of War Information, or a film title, such as Lorentz’s The River or his unfinished Ecce Homo. We also recognized titles such as Hymn of the Nations. Archivist Mike Taylor recorded and tracked this information as the only formal piece of metadata linking the LSS series reels to their original productions.
At this point, the lab has digitized 398 of 428 Library Stock Shot reels in response to researcher requests and archival staff have added the files to the National Archives Catalog for broader public access. However, without detailed descriptions, or even meaningful titles, online researchers are unlikely to find films of interest without watching dozens of hours in real time.
To make the footage more discoverable and therefore useful to researchers, a group of staff from the Moving Image and Sound Branch and Motion Picture Preservation Lab organized a telework project using the Citizen Archivist tools in the catalog. We added record tags, such as the title of a film or government agency that produced the footage (if known), and did our best to identify people, locations, and objects. We also transcribed slates and signs that may help with identification.
Part of the fun of adding catalog tags was identifying buildings in order to determine a location. While many cities have changed dramatically since the 1930s, church buildings were our best bet for structures that could be recognized today. Below are two examples from Chicago:
On the left is Our Lady of Guadalupe church in Chicago as shown in 306-LSS-660, filmed around 1939. On the right is Our Lady of Guadalupe church in Chicago now. (From Google Street View)
While much of the footage held at NARA comes with detailed shot lists created by their originating agency, not all films arrive perfectly organized and described, and not everything is online. The process of unlocking the Library Stock Shot series through additional description shows how much of our work is truly collaborative. If the researchers had not requested the films, they would still be completely unknown. Instead, we now have nearly 400 reels of gorgeous footage available in our catalog for viewing and download, with tags that will help researchers find them.