Five Questions With: Becca Bender

In a new position for the Rhode Island Historical Society, Becca Bender will serve as film archivist and curator of recorded media, the historical society announced in late 2018. In this role, she will help the historical society meet its goal of increasing promotion and preservation of its collection – which includes more than 9 million feet of moving-image film and more than 2,000 audio recordings encompassing everything from oral history to jazz performances.

Bender holds a master’s degree from New York University’s moving-image archiving and preservation program and studied film and African studies as an undergraduate at Vassar College. 

Prior to becoming an archivist, she worked for many years as an archival producer on documentary films, specializing in African-American history and culture. Her most recent documentary project, the Emmy-nominated “Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise,” is a four-hour PBS series analyzing the past 50 years of black American history. Other PBS films include Peabody Award-winning “Chisholm 72 – Unbought & Unbossed,” Emmy-nominated “Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies,” and “Beyond the Steps: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.”

PBN: In October, the Rhode Island Historical Society announced it hired you as film archivist and curator of recorded media. What more can you tell us about the responsibilities therein?

- Advertisement -

BENDER: One of the reasons I was particularly interested in this position is that my role is quite wide-ranging. At its core, I’m responsible for preserving and providing access to all collection items that fall in the categories of moving images and recorded sound, as well as continuing to build RIHS’ holdings of these types of materials.

So while much of my time is devoted to tasks such as organizing, repairing and cataloging our vast collection of film from the 20th century, I am also engaged in the process of helping patrons discover materials that further their projects; building relationships with past and current media makers whose material the RIHS may want to acquire; collaborating with other Rhode Island institutions to share skills and collection items; working with the RIHS education department to incorporate digitized film in lesson plans; and engaging the public with … audiovisual history through events and online exhibits.

As an umbrella to all of this work, I’m also focused on making sure that, as the state’s central collector of historical recorded media, we are documenting and serving all of Rhode Island’s communities.

PBN: In this position, what types of material do you handle day-to-day?

BENDER: A large proportion of our collection is comprised of 16 mm news film that originated with Rhode Island’s local television stations. We easily have over 100,000 local news clips that depict daily life from the mid-1950s through early 1980s. Additional materials on celluloid include early narrative films made in the state in the 1910s, home movies from the 1920s-1970s, educational films, industrials, movie trailers, advertisements and sporting events. We also have material on various formats of videotape – including a particularly intriguing collection of political campaign commercials from the 1970s.

In the area of sound recordings, again, we have various physical formats and content ranging from oral histories to live music performances.

In addition to my daily handling of these analog objects, much of my time is also occupied by working with digital surrogates of our collection items, as digitization is the primary way by which we make our collections accessible.

PBN: How will your position help provide increased public access to more of the RIHS archival trove?

BENDER: Prior to my arrival, there had not been a dedicated audiovisual archivist for more than 10 years. This newly created permanent position will greatly open up our collections, both from the perspective of [being able to better aid] researchers, as well as creating programming and exhibits to introduce new audiences to our moving-image and recorded sound materials.

PBN: What are some of the more interesting films, recorded media in the archives of which the general public may be unaware?

BENDER: I’ve only been with RIHS for a few months, so I’m very much still discovering our treasures. An early favorite is an African-American public affairs series called “Shades” that was produced by Rhode Island PBS in the 1970s.

Honestly, every time I open a box or can of film looking for one thing, I stumble on several others that pique my interest. Our collections are so vast and varied, there is something for everyone. I would encourage readers to spend some time browsing in our online catalog NETOP and then feel free to contact us with interests.

PBN: If Rhode Islanders are going through their homes and come across old family films, voice recordings, etc., what do you suggest they do if interested in preserving these items?

BENDER: One of the most important things is to store your home movies and other recordings in a cool, dry place that doesn’t have big swings in temperature – so no attics or basements. At this point, the best way to access your materials is to have them digitized, but always keep your originals! Digital files and DVDs degrade as well, and hard drive failure is very common, so just because something has been digitized doesn’t mean it’s been “preserved.”

The Center for Home Movies has some great resources on [its] website about caring for personal collections, and keep an eye out for “Home Movie Day” in 2019 when RIHS will invite the public to bring their films and videos to share with an audience. Additionally, RIHS is actively looking to build our collection of Rhode Islanders’ home movies, so consider donating them to us!

Emily Gowdey-Backus is a staff writer for PBN. You can follow her on Twitter @FlashGowdey or contact her via email, gowdey-backus@pbn.com.