Krzysztof Pątek Criteria of Appraisal of the Audio-Visual Materials

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Krzysztof Pątek
Criteria of Appraisal of the Audio-Visual Materials (Photographs, Sound Recordings and Motion Pictures)

The following text has been elaborated on the basis of selected Polish literature on the subject, professional experience of the author, who has long been an employee of Archive of Audio Visual Records in Warsaw, and the presentation by Sam Kula - director of audio visual programme of Canadian archives, delivered during the International Congress on Archives in Vienna, 2004.
Applying achievements of technology which has been advancing so fast during the last century saw the transfer of human thought and the preservation of all what is going on in the world which surrounds us, exceeding the boundaries fixed by writing and print. The transfer has acquired new forms expressing audio visual cognitive values which reflect reality more closely. Photography and film tapes make reviving the past an easy task. In the same way sound tapes and records make us forget the famous words: verba volant, scripta mament (words evaporate, whereas writing lasts).1

Technological achievements of the second half of the 20th century, especially advancements in registering images and sounds, resulted in the fact that more and more materials enriching archival funds were of audio visual nature. Soon enough they acquired the same rank as file documents. Furthermore, such events as the development of radio and television, increasing importance of photographic agencies and filming techniques in registering ongoing phenomena, as well as establishing new institutions the basic activity of which was recorded with the use of audio visual methods, have urged many countries to establish special archives which collect, elaborate, provide access to and preserve sound records, photographs and films.2

Increasing number of various audio visual documents and their specificity made archivists elaborate new appraisal and selection criteria of materials, which were to be much different than those applied in the case of traditional documents. Photographs, sound records and films - as opposed to file documents - very rarely concern administrative work of authorities and institutions, nor do they reflect their functioning in showing the way their offices work. However, they do possess a specific information quality as they refer to particular events, phenomena and people, thus communicating actual reality. This value of audio visual documents is not made less prominent by the fact that they usually pertain to single events or that they do not create reality but are merely its reflection.3 It is important to say that phono- and photographic documents are often made in places which are not easily accessible or which are simply dangerous. The documents are transmitted virtually the very moment they are made. Films and recordings documenting military clashes, fires, floods, great catastrophes and natural disasters, or even films recorded in space are born in such circumstances. Such materials cannot be replaced with any other sources, hence their unique and inestimable value.4

The notion of appraisal of archival documents in the context of creating archival funds is a controversial issue. There are voices which negate the existence of any standard appraisal criteria of recordings. There are also voices which declare that the division of materials into those which are of value and those which are not is relatively easy. However, what shall we do - as Sam Kula rightly asked - with the bulk of materials which do not simply fit into one of those categories? With the current advancement of digital recording technologies the key issue is no longer whether an archive will manage to accommodate all documents. Sam Kula believes that the question should rather be formed in the following way: can archivists assume the responsibility for drowning potential researchers in the ocean of irrelevant materials? Taking that into consideration it must be stated that the selection of audio visual documents is an important part of the process of archive creation. Here, it should be also stressed that the process of selecting consists not only in estimating value of materials but also giving the value by conscious choice and incorporation in funds. Therefore, archivists who have been assigned the task have to do everything to make their decisions as objective as possible by basing them on objective appraisal criteria which limit a margin of error.

An important criterion used in the selection of audio visual materials is presenting various points of view concerning specific events or issues, and not limiting the dispute to aspects which are generally deemed right.

Undoubtedly, one of the advantages of audio visual documentation is the unique opportunity to catch the moment in a world that is constantly changing. It may be that a camera lens or a film camera eye does not present us full and comprehensively documented version of events - such a record though possesses certain characteristic authenticity, accuracy and precision.

For critical appraisal of audio visual sources we should thoroughly analyse the data concerning a document's author and commissioner (which allows the identification of the recipient and the aim of the material whether informational, propaganda, didactic, documentary, commercial, etc.), as well as technical means used for its realization.5 As we all know modern technical means, especially electronic ones, allow a gross distortion of the facts. Consequently, it may lead to their specific interpretation. Using a particular kind of lens (tele lens, wide-angle lens, etc.) which limit or expand the view, cutting, applying computer techniques which give the possibility of virtually unlimited manipulation of image and sound (electronic cutting, photomontage) in order to deliberately mislead the viewer shall not be omitted here. It is also worth adding that modern techniques make it possible to "create" a film or a documentary about events which never took place, with the participation of authentic people cut from a previously recorded material. Analogically, we can record a speech by any person as long as we have their voice record at our disposal.

As a side-note I would like to attract your attention to the fact that another discipline which makes use of conscious distortion of reality with the use of audio visual techniques is art. Here, distortion is used to obtain a specific artistic effect.

Documentary value of photographs, sound records and films is mainly a result of their audio visual form. What I mean here are the elements which can be perceived by ear and eye, so different in the case of written documents. A sound record of a speech does not only show the logics of an author's reasoning. It also allows getting to know their psychological condition, as well as emotional factors accompanying their speech and giving it a particular quality. Being aware of the advantages of sound records made on magnetic tapes, and as early as in the fifties of the last century, Zofia Nałkowska, a Polish writer, stated: "I believe it to be a great achievement in our fight with the laws of vanishing, to be able to preserve live human voice on tape; transferring it not in the symbol of a letter but in its true tone, in the

vibration of vocal cords, in a smile, sigh and song. The possibility to hear thoughts of an individual, spoken with their very voice, from the depth of what is past, is something which is becoming viable, which is becoming a reality."6 It might be added here that similar advantages, enriched by image, are presented by film tapes. In one of her interesting articles Helena Karczowa wrote on the subject: "The most skilful pen of a reporter, or even the most accurate description or minutes do not reflect the atmosphere in the room where sessions take place in such a way as a direct broadcast recorded on a film tape which shows the approval or disapproval of audience expressed by the means of ovation, singing, whistles or profound silence."7 It is obvious that the script of a conversation made on spot or later from the tape seldom truly reflects the words which were spoken. Journalists writing a text of an interview usually do not pay much thought to sentence order, they correct grammar and style errors, omit fragments they consider unsuitable, etc. Thus, it may well be said that audio visual documents present a lot of information in a much more thorough way than the closest writing, as they includes direct elements, which in writing may be found between the lines at best. Accounts and reports of people who directly participated in various events are be much richer and fuller without the presence of a person making notes, as such a person unconsciously orders the text using his or her judgement and mentality. This is one of the causes of the popularity of oral history programmes organized in many countries, i.e. recording on a sound or film tape accounts of various people who have taken part in events of political, social or cultural importance.

The above considerations confirm the general principle that no source should be accepted indiscriminately. However, they do not change the fact that photographs, records and films constitute as vital a source of knowledge about social phenomena and processes as any other materials of historical importance.8

Selection and appraisal criteria of audio visual materials may be generally divided into:

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