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IU Libraries Film Archive a treasure chest of educational, rare films

Mar. 7, 2013

Many of a certain age -- particularly those who were in elementary school in the ’50s and ’60s -- will remember 16 mm films poduced by the U.S. government, Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., McGraw-Hill or National Educational Television.

They often provided the only glimpses of other worlds that U.S. school children had the opportunity to see.

By the 1970s, videotape and documentaries with large budgets and prime-time aspirations, like Kenneth Clark’s "Civilisation," began to replace the older formats.

From about 1940, IU’s Audio-Visual Center (then part of the Extension Division and later, Instructional Support Services) was the depository for U.S. government films. In time, it became the state’s most active lender of educational films to schools, museums, clubs, community centers, and churches in the state.


The IU Libraries Film Archive contains films available nowhere else in the world, and the world’s most complete collection of Encyclopedia Britannica films.

As the move to videotape made 16 mm films “obsolete,” the center became a repository for what other institutions and organizations no longer wanted.

In 2006 what was then a collection of 34,000 reels formed the core of the IU Libraries Film Archive. IU Libraries has supported the transition from lending library to historical archive with a dedicated film achivist in the Herman B Wells Library, support for resources to digitize the collections and an off-site storage environment designed to minimize deterioration.

“We have the largest educational film collection in any university library,” said Rachael Stoeltje, film archivist with the IU Libraries Film Archive.

There are films available nowhere else in the world, and rarities such as 30 titles from the 1950s CBS series "You Are There" and the world’s most complete collection of Encyclopedia Britannica films.

Stoeltje is guiding IU Libraries’ plans for a special viewing room for researchers and space for preservation work. She receives new submissions all the time and requests from all over the country to view films or to use clips from the collection.

The International Federation of Film Archives recognized more than 70 years ago that film media needed special attention. Since 1938, it has been the world leader in both preservation of film and promotion of its history. It is an exclusive international club. Based on its work in building and managing the educational film collection, the IU Libraries Film Archive was invited to become only the 17th U.S. member, joining such institutions as the Library of Congress, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Harvard Film Archives. Stoeltje went to Beijing to accept the invitation at a conference that included representatives from 48 countries.

Darlene Sadlier, director of the Portuguese Program and a professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, a program within the College of Arts and Sciences, has been using educational films fom the collection for many years in her classes in Latin American cinema and culture.

"One film that is helpful in a discussion of the history of race relations in Brazil, for instance, is 'Brazil: The Vanishing Negro,'" she said. The film is a 30-minute film poduced for public television in the 1960s, showing Afro-Brazilian religious ceremonies and the daily lives of Brazil’s black population.

“It was an informative resource when it was first poduced, but it was also polemical because it discussed the benefits of racial mixing, or rather whitening, of the Brazilian African population, to the detriment of its heritage,” Sadlier said. “In recent years, Brazil has recognized its African heritage with affirmative action laws and a holiday dedicated to national race consciousness. With this film, we can look back and consider how far the country has moved to acknowledge its long-held myth of ‘racial democracy.’”

Sadlier has published extensively on the histories, languages and cultures of Brazil. Her latest book deals with the Good Neighbor policy adopted by the U.S. government during World War II to cultivate stronger alliances with countries in the Western Hemisphere.

The Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, a World War II U.S. government agency headed by Nelson Rockefeller, was instrumental in promoting this policy during World War II, and the agency’s 16 mm films were a major tool in that effort.

“When I started looking into this subject, I checked out IU’s holdings and found a large number of the films the agency poduced. As I widened my research, I realized that no institution except for the Rockefeller Archive Center itself had a more complete collection.”

The government project to make short, 16 mm documentaries about Latin American countries attracted major filmmakers, such as John Ford and Gregg Toland. Toland was the cinematographer for "Citizen Kane"; he spent over a year in Brazil.

“The point of the films was to highlight how much North and South Americans are alike,” Sadlier explains. “They mostly emphasized Latin America as a white, middle-class, and highly industrial society. This was both what the U.S. government wanted to show U.S. audiences and what countries like Brazil wanted to project.”  

The films were made in English and dubbed in Spanish and Portuguese. They were popular all over the United States, and the Office of Inter-American Affairs made sure that those in the countries where the films were made were able to see them. “The agency supplied 16 mm projectors, the generators and even transportation to take the films to people in the rural interior,” Sadlier said.

“There has been a huge boom of interest in documentaries -- both their production and their history,” Sadlier explained. “Scholars are coming to understand their historical importance as a means to understand our past.”

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