The syllabus for Documenting 1960s America was set. The reading were neatly organized in folders for each unit, links had been updated, and film viewings were scheduled. The weeks ticked by as we developed our theoretical foundations on which to build our analysis of documentary expression and then moved into our unit on the Civil Rights Movement. Then, the emails began flowing in that the link didn’t work.
I had assigned NBC White Paper: Sit-In (1960). Broadcast in December 1960, the episode was built around interviews with black student leaders and local politicians alongside footage from protests in Nashville in order to reveal the emerging sit-in movement across the South. The hour-long news program was also a part of the TV network's efforts to use documentary to show that networks could produce rigorous, quality reporting. Such an approach by the networks has garnered scholarly attention from media scholars such as Sasha Torres and Aniko Bodroghkozy, whose scholarship I pair with Sit-In in my course. Now here I was, with class in two days, inundated with a fury of emails from students who couldn’t access the film they were reading about.
Upon further inspection, it became clear that NBC Universal Archives had removed the film from their digital collections online. It was gone! I, of course, had broken the golden rule of the internet: when in doubt, download. Fortunately, a few short clips were also available on the Library of Congress website and the class went better than expected. The event revealed how digital archival material can come online as quickly as it can go offline.
The erasure of Sit-In served as stark reminder of how dependent I was on corporate archives for my research and teaching. The major networks hold hundreds of thousands of hours of footage that bear witness to forms of oppression and resistance during the liberation struggles. As they did in the 1960s, the networks still control when and where to circulate their media, choosing to provide access one day and remove the next. When access is given, it often comes at a steep price. The networks can delete or redact at will today as they did in the 1960s when they often chose not to circulate images that would isolate white audiences. As a result, they remain in significant control of the public memories of the liberation struggles as they did during the era.
The networks are not alone. They are a part of an ecosystem of for-profit archives such as Google, Kanopy, and Proquest that are digital gatekeepers to significant archival holdings. These companies are engaged in media distribution also choosing what and what not to circulate daily, and part of a genealogy of imperial and colonial archives wielded in the service of the state and capitalism. Unlike NBC Archives though (to my knowledge), these companies are proactively acquiring materials to add to their services. These collections increasingly include alternative and radical media that is stored on these corporate servers and often requires expensive subscriptions for access. What irony that these memories of the past are increasingly reserved for an educated elite accessible only through for-profit corporations.
Therefore, I want to use this post to contribute to a growing call to action led by our colleagues in libraries who are at the forefront of the Open Access movement. We must resist being complicit in the corporatization of digital cultural collections. The academy has helped create the market for archives. Therefore, higher education institutions, as the main database subscribers, wield incredible power, when in coalition, to demand certain kinds of access; they can shift this market by funding non-profit archives like Internet Archive for example. I do not think this will change NBC Archives distribution policies anytime soon, but I am hopeful that we can imagine and support a landscape of digital collections that are committed to open access.