Media History Digital Library

Kelly Bolter


The study of film history has particularly benefited from the advent of the digital library. As a predominantly visual art form, film is the perfect subject for modern digital libraries. The creation and design of a digital library, such as Media History Digital Library, touches many issues facing digitization in the library world today: universal access, the digital divide, copyright and the public domain. The public domain is very likely facing changes following the Supreme Court’s verdict after hearing oral arguments in the case of Golan v. Holder. The essence of Golan challenges changes that were made to public domain status for thousands of creative works in 1994 following the passage of the Uruguay Round Agreements Act.
As can be seen by this example, digital libraries are much more than just a means of digitizing tactile items. They provide contemporary scholars and researchers with the tools to examine, explore, and study artifacts from the past that would have been extremely limited only a generation ago. Digital libraries are also very relevant in legal studies, as can be seen by the case of Golan v. Holder cited above. With digitization comes innumerable opportunities for new research and study; along with these exciting new opportunities, however, come just as many opportunities for problematic ethical and legal challenges.
MHDL would not have been possible more than a generation ago, if only because of the technological and software requirements to build and maintain such a large electronic repository of image files. The inclusion of a social networking platform like Facebook would not have been possible more than five years ago, much less a generation ago. MHDL is truly a model for the incorporation of digital technologies into study of the humanities. Many of the periodical titles featured in the Library are not well known today, and all of them have long ago ceased publication. Given these circumstances, their availability to the general public is spotty at best. It is unclear if any other efforts have been made to digitize these materials on the scale of MHDL, but this possibility seems unlikely.

The Library

Media History Digital Library would not have been possible without exceptional volunteer contributions. From financial donations to scanning entire collections of historic media periodicals, MHDL has benefited enormously from the generosity of volunteer effort and donations from a variety of contributors. MHDL is home to over 200,000 scanned pages from historic media periodicals dating before 1923. The Library maintains a vibrant digital presence through social networking as well as a forum and routinely updated blog. Much of the content of MHDL is actually hosted by the Internet Archive (IA), perhaps the largest digital library on the internet today. Collaboration between MHDL and IA could not be more natural, as IA is dedicated to the preservation and presentation of historic media materials from the public domain. IA hosts a number of rich collections, including the revered Prelinger Archives.


The Library’s visual layout is clean, uncluttered, and very easy to navigate. The site itself is hosted through Wordpress using a professional template. Users are immediately greeted with a standard navigation bar, which divides subpages into broad categories: Collections, Blog, About, Press, FAQ, Sponsorship, and Forum. Also featured within the navigation bar is a simple search box. Clearly, MHDL has been designed with the user in mind. The FAQ page in particular provides very useful help to site users and addresses many basic questions that doubtlessly occur to many who navigate the Library. Questions are arranged according to general subjects such as Downloads and Searching; Original Materials; Rights and reuse; and Community.
Featured on the right-hand side of the Library’s homepage is the “Collections Gateway,” a spotlight for groupings of media periodicals. For instance, users may browse titles within collections of fan magazines, those from early Hollywood history, broadcasting, technical topics, and much more. For the time being, the design of MHDL seems to focus more on site use through browsing or more casual searching rather than advanced searching. The homepage layout clearly facilitates this through the prominent display of general collection links. The absence of an advanced search function also speaks to this focus.


Inclusion of a search box on the homepage is somewhat misleading as it currently functions. I performed a search for “Mary Pickford,” one of the most popular film actresses of the 1910s and 1920s. My search yielded no results, so I tried a search for “Clara Bow,” another popular name from early Hollywood history. This search retrieved one result, a hit from the MHDL’s blog. The post copied the text of an article about dress designer Travis Banton, who described the process of clothing design for Bow. What makes the search box misleading is that is only draws from content hosted on the Wordpress servers, not the periodical content that is hosted by Internet Archive. There are no search tips or disclaimers stating as such, so users must experiment with this feature.
Accessing individual periodical issues allows users to perform keyword searches of the text. I again searched for “Mary Pickford,” once with quotations and once without, which yielded very different results. Without using quotation marks, IA’s search mechanism retrieved all uses of the words “Mary” and “Pickford,” regardless of whether or not they were used consecutively. With quotation marks, I retrieved a much smaller number of results but these were all relevant to the intent of my search. Results from individual volume searches are displayed at the bottom of the user’s computer screen as small balloon icons. Hovering the mouse over each one will show a small text box containing the search query. Clicking on that, the page reader will turn to the corresponding page within the issue.
Users unfamiliar with this period in Hollywood and general media history may have some trouble with the search function, as existing browse options are limited to specific journal titles and general subject categories. No index yet exists for personal names; it is unclear whether an option as exhaustive as this will be created as it would doubtless be a labor-intensive undertaking. For now, the focus of the Library seems to be on providing access as soon as possible to newly scanned and categorized materials. While emphasis on instantaneous access gratifies user desire to access more materials, this approach may prove problematic down the line if MHDL webmasters wish to create content indexes or arrange scanned materials according to a more specific metadata schema.


MHDL also exemplifies the larger dialogue currently surrounding the status of copyright and the public domain within the United States. As discussed by MHDL digital coordinator Eric Hoyt (2011a), retaining the public domain is essential for the continued study of and access to historic film and media materials. MHDL would not have been possible were it not for the existence of the public domain, not to mention other electronic repositories like IA that utilize materials classified as such. Decherney (2011) echoes the concerns voiced by Hoyt (2011a; 2011b) in a recent editorial for The New York Times. Nowhere have the effects of copyright limitations been felt more keenly than in the realm of film, Decherney (2011) asserts, particularly because “access to a stable and growing public domain has been essential to innovation.” More specifically, copyright restrictions reimposed on works previously considered to be part of the public domain “impacts students and the American public, who have lost the opportunity to learn and enjoy many works of great cultural importance” (Lee, 2011).
MHDL is the perfect fusion of technology and history. As seen by the efforts of MHDL’s creators and contributors, the form of the digital library is the perfect solution to allowing universal access to fragile or rare historical materials. Digitizing historic media periodicals makes these previously rare and obscure titles freely available for future scholarship, teaching, and research. MHDL is essentially an updated window to the past, a contemporary way of accessing the rich history of Hollywood and the media industry as it was in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century. The incorporation of digital techniques and approaches into the humanities disciplines is without a doubt the way of the future. It is difficult to imagine a return to non-digital study of historic materials, especially in light of how much it has opened access for future scholarship and study.


Decherney, P. (2011, October 4). Will copyright stifle Hollywood? The New York Times. Retrieved from

Golan v. Holder (U.S. App. Lexis 12641 [2011]).

Hoyt, E. (2011a). Why the Public Domain Matters. In Media History Digital Library. Retrieved from
Hoyt, E. (2011b). Engaging the Public Domain. International Journal of Learning and Media, 3(1), 1-5.

Lee, E. (2011). Golan v. Holder: Supreme Court to Review Copyrighting Works in Public Domain. In The Huffington Post. Retrieved from

Pierce, D., Hoyt, E., & Hagenmaier, W. (2011). Media History Digital Library. Retrieved from