The National Archives Channel on Youtube:
Youtube, it turns out, is good for something besides watching happyslapping and kittens jumping in and out of boxes. One of the advantages of studying a subject which has a wide popular cultural appeal is that both individuals and institutions have made material which might otherwise take time to obtain easily and immediately accessible online. Video quality is not always be great, copyright laws are sometimes being infringed, and the comments sections are a disturbing window into the mind of American teenagers, but film clips are available quickly, universally, and in a format that is relatively easy to embed and even extract. Private users of youtube have uploaded segments of several important Second World War films (and the whole of Target for Tonight (Harry Watt, 1941) (at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7iIJJUSz4k8 and connected uploads), but this review will concentrate on the channel created by the UK National Archives.
The channel contains three sorts of material: instructional videos on how to use the archives; vidcasts designed to promote the National Archives work, often tied to significant dates, popular cultural icons or releases of documents; and original films, some excerpted, some short ones presented in their entirety. Together, these three types cover almost the entire timespan of the Archives’ collection, although inevitably archive film is more heavily concentrated towards the modern period. Viewing figures also indicate the popularity of different films with users. This in itself a useful source on contemporary interests in the past, although it is hard to know whether the disparity between those interested in recent releases on UFOs (162,723 views in a week) and those finding out how to use the catalogues (160 views over seven months) is exciting evidence of international engagement with a British institution or a depressing example of dumbing down.
The overall layout of the channel is standard for youtube and users will find little difficulty in navigating around, although the Archives’ habit of hanging a vidcast on the name of a well-known film about the war (eg ‘Carve Her Name With Pride’) could risk confusion. Clicking on these links will not lead you to the original, but rather to an exploration of some of the ideas conjured up by these films and how they can be explored through the Archives’ collections.
First time users of the National Archives could do much worse than to prepare for their visit by watching the ‘how to’ videos, which include useful pointers on how files are numbered, how to order documents and how to keep track of research notes. The vidcasts, whilst they do contain much primary material, are plainly not aimed at an academic audience and are more useful to spark interest than for research or resources. The primary material used from the Archives is not always clearly identified for follow up, and this makes it hard to judge its provenance. The original archive film material is by far the most useful for the undergraduate level researcher. For the Second World War, this consists of London Can Take It (Crown Film Unit, 1940) Salvage with a Smile (Brunel, 1940), Coughs and Sneezes (MOI, 1945) and the spoof newsreel Hitler Assumes Command (Movietone, 1941). Although the additional information provided is sparse, further details could be obtained from the Internet Movie Database (http://www.imdb.com/) or the BFI’s Screenonline (http://www.screenonline.org.uk/index.html). London Can Take It is well known, but the shorter film Salvage with a Smile provides a good indication of the depth of such sources. As well as evidence of how the state ‘sold’ the need for salvage to the population (and we might enquire how useful such salvage actually was in terms of resources, as opposed to encouraging a feeling of involvement), the film is rich with evidence about middle class claims to social leadership even in the midst of the ‘People’s War’. The dustman’s expertise in sorting rubbish might be vital for the salvage effort, but he’s still providing it via the medium of the clearly middle class WVS coordinator. The Professor’s requests for popular compliance might be easier to take if he wasn’t so obviously reliant on his housekeeper to organise the rubbish for him: this is definitely an early war film, since by 1943 he would might well have lost his domestic servant to munitions work. It is a shame that unlike the BFI’s Inview (http://www.bfi.org.uk/inview/) site, there is no contextual information here to allow us to investigate the production and reception of the film, but this stripped down format is the price that has to be paid for the accessibility of a youtube channel.
This is a bit long, but I’ve tried to show the mix of different things you should think about – ie talking about the format, but also looking at precise examples of the material available and discussing its utility. I could probably have cut it down a bit by cutting out the cheap cracks about UFOs and teenagers). Normally on a blog posting I’d not have spelled out the links but rather enabled them for the words that precede them, but since your submissions will be marked in hard copy, please give us the full link. Obviously, you don’t need to embed the video, but if a screen shot would help to explain what you’re talking about, please feel free.