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The Uses of Enchantment

This third post from an ongoing series on prioritization explores our attempts to articulate the functions and uses of time-based media, part of our work developing a software application for assessing the value of IU’s audio, video, and film collections. The title of Bruno Bettelheim’s classic work on fairy tales—The Uses of Enchantment—provides a vivid touchstone from which to consider the enduring value of a time-based media collection.

So how is enchantment part of this picture?

Several successful systems exist for ranking the research value of collections of non-time-based media, such as manuscripts or still images. However, none of them seems suitable for assessing the various collections of time-based media found at IU, which leads us to ask: How does the value of time-based media differ from that of other archival formats?

In certain contexts, time-based media are perceived simply as carriers of information that could be expressed just as well—and perhaps more conveniently—in writing. Oral historians often take this position, for example, by treating sound recordings as the raw material for definitive transcriptions.

But this is where enchantment enters into the equation. Sound recordings and moving images can marshal a different power than the written word. According to a number of writers, they “humanize” and “bring to life” events, “stir the emotions,” “transport us,” and enable us to “listen in on history, to hear it again as it happened,” having greater “impact” and giving a more “comprehensive” understanding than written sources. These claims center on a particular experience that time-based media offer and are concerned more with vividness of impact than factual documentation—something that rings true for all of us who have felt the magic of a compelling audio recording or an enchanting film.

Paper documents might also help “bring events to life” but we find that time-based media are more often perceived as sources of heightened experience. And that makes a difference in how we assess their value.

There’s also the matter of what it means to “quote” an item. Traditionally, a researcher would transcribe and quote the words of an archival paper document when presenting research in print. But audio or video/film can be incorporated more directly into what users do or make, for instance by inserting it into radio or TV documentaries, into new creative works, into the classroom, into ebooks, or into conference presentations—taking advantage of the heightened experience such objects can offer. In general, the uses of primary time-based audiovisual content seem less likely to be limited to what has been ordinarily considered “research” than are the uses of primary written source material.

This is not to argue that time-based media don’t have research value—in fact, the information they offer for research purposes can differ qualitatively from that available from other sources. For example, researchers studying the gestures and intonations of an impassioned orator or the subtle stylistic nuances of a celebrated musical performance are likely to find time-based media indispensable. Not only can time-based media enchant, then, but they can also help us to understand whatever it is that enchants us.

The Four Functions of Time-Based Media

The “value” of a recording or film can be assessed in terms of its prospective functions for both custodians and users. We suggest that these functions fall into four broad categories:

1. Experiential

The recording (or film) enables someone to have an aesthetically heightened experience. This might be compared to the literary value of a text or the artistic value of visual art—a highly subjective call, but one that is nevertheless intuitively powerful. Does listening to an audio recording give the listener goose bumps? Does watching a film transport the viewer vividly back into another time, or might it enchant the community for a night in the IU Cinema?

2. Research

The recording enables someone to make a new contribution to knowledge or it provides evidence or data in a research endeavor. The knowledge should be “new” (or at least “rediscovered”) in the context of some substantial community—perhaps an academic field, but not necessarily.

3. Instruction

The recording enables someone to convey or acquire existing knowledge. This includes its use in teaching, including self-instruction, but also everyday consultation as a reference source. The emphasis here is on well-established factual information.

4. Production

The recording enables someone to incorporate its content into a new work. This encompasses transcriptions (e.g., in a book or article) as well as direct incorporation of audiovisual content (e.g., into a radio or TV documentary).

These functions of time-based media inform the criteria used to assess the value of media collections in our emerging selection for preservation tool.

// Patrick Feaster and Mike Casey

Discussion

3 thoughts on “The Uses of Enchantment

  1. Very intriguing approach to assessing AV value. One relevant question re: research value may be to find out how much of the world’s information is now transmitted via non-textual channels. I would guess that by far most research is still transmitted via text, but that may may already be changing –and a continuing change would give audiovisual items greater relevance. This would also affect their production value, of course.

    Audiovisual materials can also provide information for which there is simply no adequate transcription process –witness the many ethnographic field recordings that over the years have been unsuccessfully transcribed to Western musical notation. Not only are they incomplete, but one could argue that they are often misleading.

    Posted by Marcos Sueiro Bal | 02/06/2012, 10:46 am

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  1. Pingback: The School of the Sky Returns « media preservation - 04/13/2012

  2. Pingback: The “Value” of Obscurity « atmintern - 04/25/2012

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