I wrote my first serious research paper in high school; about ethnographic film. In 1988 the only way to see many classic ethnographic films was on film. You know, the kind of thing which comes in big metal canisters and has to be fed through a movie projector. It would snap and break on occasion, in which case you had to splice it back together with tape. It was scratchy and noisy, and more to the point: incredibly expensive. I simply would not have been able to do such a project if it wasn’t for the Donnell Library across from the Museum of Modern Art in midtown Manhattan.
I remember the small viewing rooms, the helpful librarians, and the thrill of treating film like it was a book: rewinding, viewing scenes over and over, taking notes. Nothing you couldn’t do at that time with a VHS tape, but one rarely got a chance to handle a film reel in the same way. I was pleasantly surprised that the city of NY would allow me to do so. It allowed me to overcome the awe of being a spectator in order to critically examine these films in a way that, in those days, would not otherwise have been possible.
I read about the Donnell closing its doors nearly a year ago, but the above picture, taken by an archivist who worked there during the library’s last days, of those film canisters being packed up gave the story added poignancy.