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Historical movies, documentaries, and other films preserved by the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) are being digitized and made available for free viewing on the Internet, thanks to a collaboration announced today between NARA and Google.

As part of a pilot project, Google and NARA have already digitized nearly 60 classic World War II newsreels – the main method used to convey images of the war to the public. By today’s standards, these films would be classified as propaganda. They were made and distributed by newsreel companies under the oversight of the government’s Office of War Information, and are unrelentingly upbeat, even when showing scenes of gore and devastation. But there’s no better way to understand how people on the home front were forming their own views of the war.

There’s also a small collection of films released by NASA in the 1960s and 1970s, including “The Eagle Has Landed,” a 14-minute summary of the Apollo 11 mission, with a sombre, ultraserious voice-over, but many extended scenes and still images that aren’t typically shown in modern TV shows or movies about the moon program. (The film is seemingly incomplete – 14 minutes is long enough to get to Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s descent from the lunar module to the surface, but then the film stops abruptly.)

NARA and Google aren’t saying today whether or when more films from the Archives will be available online. In the words of a press release, the two organizations are “exploring the possibilities of expanding the online film collection and making the Archives’ extensive textual holdings available via the Internet.”

That mention of “textual holdings” could be significant. As Technology Review’s David Talbot reported last summer (“The Fading Memory of the State,” July 2005), NARA is already straining to find ways to store the digital records piling up at the White House, Pentagon, and Census Bureau. While it currently stores fewer than 10,000 gigabytes of such data, it expects to take in almost 350 petabytes of electronic records by 2022 (a petabyte is about one million gigabytes). So the question of how to digitize the archive’s immense volume of print documents hasn’t even been on the table. As NARA’s own online FAQ puts it: “The volume of records in NARA’s possession that pre-date electronic formats is so vast, that costs and resource availabilities will most likely preclude the conversion of all of them to electronic formats.”

NARA needs rescuing – and Google is probably the only organization with the resources, interest, and ambition to help do it. Through its Google Books Library Project the company has already declared its intention to digitize and make searchable the print collections of major libraries, such as the New York Public Library and Oxford’s Bodleian Library (see “The Infinite Library,” May 2005). The company is investing in machines that can scan books faster and more safely. Archival documents might be more fragile, and thus take longer to digitize. But all indications are that Google is perfectly serious about its stated mission to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

Expect to see the NARA/Google partnership expand. Right now, I’m just waiting for them to digitize those secret government films of the aliens who crashed in Roswell, NM, in 1947. ;-)


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