Stephanie Jenkins and Salimah El-Amin describe their jobs as “Indiana Jones, but for nerds.” The archival researchers for Ken Burns’ Florentine Films go on searches for the “Holy Grail” of still and moving images that can help build a documentary that touches and teaches viewers.
“I think of what we do as applied anthropology. It certainly is applied research skills,” Jenkins said. “My favorite thing is connecting with archivists and also with people with personal collections who often go through a process of realizing how valuable it is that their grandfather saved something in their attic or that their family photo album now can be used to educate the entire American public. When documents change meaning, it’s really exciting for me.”
The producers discussed their work and how they use materials collected in the University of Georgia’s Special Collections Libraries and other archives during a Facebook Live discussion in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Brown Media Archives & Peabody Awards Collection, one of the most robust audiovisual collections in the United States.
During the remote discussion, a part of the University of Georgia’s Signature Lecture Series, El-Amin demonstrated the importance of finding images for a Burns’ docuseries on the Vietnam War, and Jenkins described culling through shot logs of old newsfilm in the Brown Media Archives to build the materials for a PBS documentary on public housing issues that uses Atlanta’s East Lake Meadows as an example.
Taking questions from the audience, El-Amin talked about how the process of making a documentary has evolved with a recent resurgence in interest in the craft. “It’s definitely changed from its original iterations,” she said, adding that now short docs can be uploaded to Instagram. “But there are some tried and true things, the importance of narrative and story. To take a viewer through history is eternal. … The most challenging part is finding those amazing images.”
But Jenkins said the foresight to preserve materials in the Brown Media Archives makes it easier to search for materials than in a lot of places in the country, even New York City, where she lives and from where she joined the conversation.
“Maybe 1 percent of America’s visual heritage is online, maybe. Picture your grandmother’s attic, and picture that times 300 million and that’s America’s visual heritage. There’s so much out there,” she said. There’s a lot of material that is accessible, but I’ve been able to uncover a lot of never-before-seen images by going to the archives.”
Mary Miller, the Peabody Awards archivist with Brown Media who led the discussion, said that Brown’s archives are even more accessible now, thanks to the work of over 100 UGA Libraries’ faculty, staff and students who worked on a special project earlier in 2020 during the campus shutdown due to COVID-19 to transcribe thousands of shot logs in the WSB News Video Collection and view and describe hundreds hours of tapes.
Throughout the discussion, one theme was evident: preservation, which is central to the mission of the UGA Libraries’ special collections units.
Jenkins talked about the many times when she would call newspapers or schools or other businesses and find that people had thrown out their archival material because they didn’t have the money, space or manpower to care for the materials, which is why dedicated libraries and archives are so important.
“I think that you all (documentarians and researchers) are one of the best arguments in favor of material being preserved because we can say, ‘it still has a life; it still has meaning; it is still relevant; it can convey information in a powerful way,’” Miller said.
The Brown Media Archives & Peabody Awards Collection’s 25th anniversary celebration continues throughout the fall with a number of other virtual events, including a weeklong series of events celebrating Home Movie day from Oct. 13-17. All events will be live-streamed on the archives’ Facebook page, Brown Media Archives & Peabody Awards Collection. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.