Forgotten in Plain Sight

Tuesday, October 7, 2014
Image credit: 
Hoover Institution
Image credit: 
Hoover Institution

Another long lost historical item has just been discovered: The silent film version of Sherlock Holmes starring William Gillette!

A film restorer reports that "William Gillette's Sherlock Holmes has ranked among the holy grails of lost film." In the Raiders of the Lost Ark, the last scene shows the crated ark being deposited in a vast warehouse of crates, suggesting it is likely to lie forgotten though hidden in plain sight. That's what appears to have happened with this film; it was “found” in the vaults of the Cinémathèque Française.

It’s a testimonial to the power of preservation that this century-old film was found in a film vault. Yet that is precisely where one is likely to seek old films. So was this film really lost?

This begs a question: How do we know what we have in our digital preservation storage system, which currently contains about fourteen million archival items in digital form? Once a digital file has been placed into the system, it is backed up and regularly monitored but can be easily overlooked in the camouflage provided by millions of similar items.

To keep track of these millions of files, we rely on a patchwork of databases, finding aids, internal documentation, use copies, and the memory of staff members. But gaps exist in this patchwork. As we are preparing to move our digital files to a new system hosted by Stanford University, we began surveying our digital content and discovered some "lost" files. They were safely preserved in our storage system, just as that silent film was tucked away in the film vault, but they were not documented anywhere, not available to researchers, and were old enough that staff members had forgotten about them.

Now that we've found these digital files we're making them available to researchers, much as the Sherlock Holmes film will be screened for an audience at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. We'll also be deploying a new digital asset management system, which will help prevent future lost files. But the software is only as good as the information we enter into the system. Every archive struggles with how to describe archival materials well enough that none of them can ever be lost and still be safely preserved.