More Than Just Babies & Puppies: Home Movies as Historical Documents
For some of us, just the memory of a neighbor or colleague dragging out a projector to show their family’s road trip or Hawaiian vacation is enough to send us into full-blown fight-or-flight mode with nightmares of jittery camera work, out-of-focus babies, and never ending “majestic” landscapes shot from the car. It might call to mind, for some of us, a parent’s first VHS recorder and an insistence to document each and every event and milestone of your awkward adolescence, resulting in hours and hours of raw, unedited pageants and plays and family reunions. And believe me, those impressions are not entirely wrong. Take it from someone who knows. As a moving image archivist with an affinity for the lesser known motion picture histories, over the last five years I have endured enjoyed the monotony of hundreds of hours of home movie footage. While we may not be impressed by or motivated to watch the hours of video footage of an empty chair (because mom forgot the camera was on) or erratic close-ups of a dog doing nothing particularly impressive, I would like to suggest to you that home movies are much more than this.
History in Motion
[Peter Pauls Stewart Family Films, No. 1 – Life with Elizabeth] on The Portal to Texas History.
Whether shot on Super 8, VHS, or even on a smartphone, home movies can be as useful to a scholar as a diary or correspondence. They are records of everyday lives being lived and allow us insight into how ordinary people wanted to be seen and remembered. While a single home movie might reveal to us a historic local event or person not documented elsewhere, a larger corpus can tell us about the commonalities among people of a region or locality. Viewing one family Christmas celebration might reveal the behaviors and rituals of one family in one town. Viewed in larger sums, we might learn more about consumerism, fashion, and the traditions of people from different backgrounds and different socioeconomic statuses. A single Fourth of July parade might show us a visiting celebrity or highlight an important achievement from that year. Viewing multiple parades, we can see changing urban landscapes and downtowns, the events and achievements celebrated during a particular time period, and the evolution of organizations prominent to a specific region. Although home movie collections are ripe for scholarship, it is much more difficult for researchers to access home movies than other more traditional resource like a letter or photograph. Few people own film projectors and the fragility of the film itself makes projection a risky endeavor. Videotape is actually in a much more dire situation because the continuous push to create better recording and playback technologies resulted in numerous formats that are no longer supported. Much of our home video heritage is highly endangered due to a combination of physical deterioration and obsolescence.
Home Movie Day – October 21, 2017
Fortunately, a growing number of cultural heritage institutions, including the University of North Texas Media Library, are recognizing the value of preserving and providing access to home movies and other amateur films and videos. Home movies have even been named to the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry. Every October, institutions around the world celebrate Home Movie Day, which is “a celebration of amateur films and filmmaking” that brings together families and individuals to share their home movies with their community. Although we don’t have an events scheduled in Denton this year, you can still celebrate Home Movie Day 2017 by taking action to preserve your own family films and videos that might be hiding in your closets and attics and consider having them digitally reformatted so that they are available for future generations.
Learn More about Home Movies
Do you want to explore how home movies might be useful in your own research or just want to see footage of Denton and Dallas County? Head over to the Portal to Texas History for Spotlight on North Texas, a collection of home movies digitized and preserved by the UNT Libraries and the Texas Archive of the Moving Image through an NEH Common Heritage Grant. Follow Spotlight on North Texas on Facebook and Twitter to see highlights from the collection and learn more about upcoming projects.