Much news came from the recent announcement that the Library of Congress was adding 25 new titles to the National Film Registry for permanent preservation. This assortment of “Hollywood classics, documentaries and innovative shorts reflecting genres from every era of American filmmaking,” were selected because they are “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”
Amid all the hoopla, it is worth bearing in mind that there are many, many other film and video productions that provide a different kind of significance, one that provides unique historical–and sociological–insight. These are “ephemeral films,” which consist of everything from anti-drug dramas to car advertisements. Rick Prelinger is a long-time champion of these productions, and he provides access to over 2,000 titles through the Internet Archive. Equally important, the information has been placed in the public domain under a Creative Commons license.
While titles such as Good Table Manners, Duck and Cover, and Are You Popular? never won an Oscar, they do document certain idealized behaviors and mindsets from the past. On this basis, the Library of Congress acquired over 48,000 titles from Prelinger in 2002.
Announcing the acquisition, the Librarian of Congress noted that the films are “quite distinct from that found in Hollywood feature films and newsreels. These are the films that children watched in the classroom, that workers viewed in their union halls, that advertisers presented in corporate boardrooms, and that homemakers saw at women’s club meetings.”
Our collective history is richer with the preservation of the Prelinger collection. With apologies to Baudelaire, we now have the chance to extract eternal knowledge from ephemeral films.