What Does a Film Archivist Do?

Paul Cartmell

Film archivists are responsible for cataloging, preserving, and organizing a collection of films and the memorabilia associated with them. Because the majority of documents and films included in a collection are old and often in poor condition, a film archivist is often responsible for preserving and making digital copies of the items. Communication is an important feature in the work of a film collection because an archivist is also required to assist researchers in sourcing films and documents about film production. Archivists are also known as moving image archivists reflecting the variety of information that they are responsible for preserving.

Film archivists preserve the works of classic Hollywood.
Film archivists preserve the works of classic Hollywood.

Much like a librarian, a film archivist is responsible for organizing information and keeping records of the items within a collection. New items require positioning in the correct position in the catalog and, when used by researchers, the items in the collection are replaced on the shelves and document cabinets by the film archivist. Film archives are created and kept by academic institutions, film studios, and by private collectors who employ archivists to care for their collection.

A film archivist may take original film rolls and copy and store them digitally.
A film archivist may take original film rolls and copy and store them digitally.

Archives are not solely made up of films, but also include digital and non-digital copies of films stored on DVD, CD, and video tapes. Documents that are also held by film archives include scripts, production schedules, still images, and various other memorabilia associated with the film industry. When completing his or her duties, a film archivist will often be responsible for organizing and preserving photographic and paper documents. Archivists should also be familiar with preservation software and techniques to ensure that the documents are held for future generations as hard copies and digital versions.

Prior to becoming a film archivist, a comprehensive education must be completed, which includes the completion of an undergraduate degree in English, history, or associated humanities subjects. Graduate education usually includes library subjects and additional education in preservation techniques. Alongside the completion of an academic education, each film archivist should be a good communicator who is able to assist researchers and source new materials for the collection.

Film archiving is important, as movies, documentaries, and television programs are seen as a social document reflecting the period in which the film was made. In the first half of the 20th century, film production was viewed as a fast, disposable form of entertainment that was rarely preserved for future reference. During the second half, however, films began to be seen as an art form and an important part of the culture in which they were created.

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