Research possibilities in the digital archive

As digital archives become more accessible it opens new opportunities for researchers, but also new pitfalls. The digital simplicity may cause jumping to conclusions – as was the case with the Swedish invention of sound film in 1921.

Through digitizing projects more and more material from within the walls of archives and libraries becomes available to the researcher and accessible at any convenient time. James P. Purdy lists the availability aspect as a key gift to researchers as digital archives “eliminate many temporal and spatial obstac-les to archival research”. Access is immediate with a click on a link in a web browser and the boundaries and limitations set by an archive’s or library’s physical space is eliminated. As a democratising project digital archives take the collections from a specific space and move them into the homes of anyone interested. You don’t need to make a journey to a specific location, often far away, to access the collections.

Metadata – not enough or too much

However, Purdy also stresses that easy and fast access to material somewhat changes the way research is conducted. The simplicity of access encourages the feeling that “everything is there” through the window of the browser.

Digital archives seem to discourage intensive and time-consuming research for the benefit of showing fast results. The researcher therefore runs the risk of only finding what is in the database – nothing more – and misses out on material that in the first instance might look redundant but still gives a more complete picture of an enfolding event. Yet, old truths regarding how to critically approach material are still valid within a digital archive, truths that the best metadata can’t address. Metadata (or the lack of metadata) are often the subject of debate. Discussions tend to concern the amount and detail of information given about a specific object in which the sender tries to position him/ herself as an intended user and what kind of information he/she needs. Supplementary questions from a user perspective often move between the extremes of too little or too much metadata, too rudimentary or too detailed metadata, etcetera.

Regardless of what a researcher thinks or feels about the existing metadata, objects in a digital archive (like the documents in its parent archive) pre-sent phenomena directly or indirectly, enriching the understanding of a given event. With the rapidity and ease of access through a digital interface this enrichment and the demands for accuracy seem to be if not forgotten, then at least given less significance.

 A marvellous invention that never caught on

An example of an event that may be wrongly interpreted if only the most easily accessible sources are consulted is the exhibition in 1921 of the Swedish inventor Sven Aason Berglund’s apparatus for showing sound film. According to the newspaper reports the public screening on 17 February 1921 was held in front of several prominent personalities, which might explain the impact the screening had. It is even rumoured that Gustav V was present although no records can support this claim.

The screen for the evening was placed in the garden of Berglund’s house in Brevik, Lidingö outside Stockholm, with the apparatus positioned in the basement of the house while the speaker was placed underneath the screen in the open air. The audience stood at the windows and on the terrace, looking down, or as the Filmfotofon company’s CEO Victor Frestadius said – in “a large lounge with a high ceiling”. During the evening, and under the warmth of the interior lights the guests drank punch and seemed overall to enjoy a good evening out. After the screening the attending visitors competed with each other in overwhelming exclamations about the benefits of Berglund’s innovation.

Oscar Monthelius (archaeologist and member of the Swedish Academy), for example, considered that Swedish science had experienced a wonderful day that would go down in Swedish cultural history. Also foreign correspondents who witnessed the screening reacted with amazement. They used Berglund’s invention as a backdrop when reporting on domestic inventions of a similar kind, as in the case of The Times’ article about Mr. H. Grindell-Matthews. In short – it had been a great evening that once and for all had shown that it was possible to synchronize speech with moving images, and this had all been done by an ingenious Swedish inventor. Or was it an evening to remember apart from the punch that was served? That the invention never caught on after the screening might indicate the latter suggestion to be a more appropriate conclusion.

Newspapers reporting what is out of the ordinary

Empirically written material of mi-nutes, and other documents such as pamphlets, publicity material, news-paper articles and catalogues that have digitally been made available is an essential source of information for the researcher. They speak of an incident that has happened, and the placement and size of a given text about an event within a daily paper give, for example, a hint about how newsworthy that incident was. In Berglund’s case the screening appeared on many a newspaper’s front page. Yet, all this material say rather little about the wider context of things and give only a partial image of what actually happened. Although press material is an indispensable source of information of what was going on, writings of this kind need, as Donald Crafton has argued, to be approached carefully as they consist of filtered information depending on whom the publication was representing. What is learned from these sources is mainly what according to the writer differs from the normal and out of the ordinary and therefore worth commenting on.

A jump to conclusions

Contemporary writings may therefore create problems when researchers try to evaluate the impact that a particular event has had. For, generally speaking, using editorials, articles and reviews from contemporary periodicals and newspapers is problematic, as these “voices” tend to stand for an incident’s general reception, when we actually know very little about the actual audience at the time and their reactions towards a specific event. That is, one needs to be careful not to mix a social context with writings about an incident by people who might have other vested interests than a strictly critical one.

With the easily accessible objects in the digital archive that speak of an event like Berglund’s screening the necessary ‘de-filtration’ might also come in second hand, if at all. The understanding that everything exists in the ‘immense’ collection of the digital archive – albeit it is the physical archive that is truly immense – together with an emphasis to present findings too rapidly might cause the researcher to draw too rapid conclusions on an inadequate amount of material.

A pioneer in sound film

Looking beyond the screening of 17 February 1921 and the digital archive an image emerges of an inventor that since 1906 had been struggling to find funding – first teaming up with inven-tors in Germany and later with Victor Frestadius. The latter worked in Great Britain with peat alcohol but had, after Swedish authorities turned down his application to sell real alcohol, dis-mantled his company in favour of pursuing a career within sound film. The development of Berglund’s invention had despite economic problems been constant, and already in 1919 a machine had been exhibited in Stock-holm and rumours had started to circulate of a public screening. This rumour emerged from time to time building up towards the event in 1921. The feeling of simultaneously being able to hear and see a person was apparently overwhelming during the day of Berglund’s screening, as technical problems were not noted by the press. But the light sensitive cell used in Berg-lund’s apparatus, consisting of selenium, did create problems. The cell was the most important part of the invention, but at the same time its Achilles heel. At high frequencies selenium heats up and thereby exercises a resistance against the transmission of the ‘picture of the sound’, making the ‘image’ blurry. The result was bad sound quality as well as bad synchronisation.

This technical obstacle was not overcome until the photocell became available during the mid-1920s. On the evening of 17 February 1921 the Swe-dish climate could actually have saved Berglund’s day, since the temperature probably cooled the apparatus enough (the average temperature for February 1921 was 1.6 degrees Celsius below zero). This might explain why subsequent screenings failed.

Real research will remain hard work

The digital archive offers the researcher a narrow perspective. Nevertheless it is worth using as a point of departure. Its ease of access and the simplicity by which a researcher can find material that in the physical archive is hard to get by both speeds up the process and enables the researcher to get an overview of a specific topic – however, the time-consuming journey to the phy-sical archive or library and the time spent there is still needed if we are to avoid simplistic interpretations of events caused by not consulting all the relevant sources.


PhD in cinema studies and researcher at the Research Department, National Library of Sweden (Kungliga biblioteket)