The Great University of Manitoba 16mm Massacre

From Uptown Magazine May 8, 2008

Act of mass destruction
Walter Forsberg goes on a rescue mission after U of M purges its collection of 16mm prints

Last week a colleague alerted me to the presence of hundreds of 16mm film reels and cans, sitting empty in the recycling facilities at the University of Manitoba. This colleague – who I will call ‘Hollis’ – and I arrived at the university soon thereafter with the empty trunk of my white Oldsmoblile ready to salvage anything possible from the apparently purged film collection.

All manner of wild accusatory phantasma circulated in my brain and frankly, after Hollis and I rescued some of the empty reels, I was pretty confrontational when speaking with Ms. Irene Thai, the U of M’s IST (Informational Service and Technology) manager of classroom services. Ms. Thain, though, was still nice enough to send me an e-mail laundry list of reasons why the 16mm was ditched, citing: “deterioration, breakage and decomposition of the prints, lack of use and demand, obsolescence of the 16mm projectors, and the ability to replace 16mm prints with video prints when material was still in demand.”

Respectfully, Ms. Thain’s explainable for wholesale destruction of a library collection is unconvincing – especially given that Ms. Thain’s original reasoning (while I was in her office having a conniption) for the purge was that the prints were “unwatchable.” Obviously, 16mm technology is outmoded and projectors are hard to replace/fix, but I’ve been a projectionist for five years and ‘unwatchability’ is too broad a claim to make – particularly when hundreds (approaching a thousand) of prints are involved. It makes one wonder whether each print was inspected by a trained film archivist – with background checks into a title’s print availability elsewhere – or if the library and IST simply wanted to clear out some space.

Ms. Thain’s excuses remind me of the bibliographic-bureaucratic justification for the destruction of antique books and newspapers once they’ve been scanned onto microfilm (a practice horrifyingly charted in Nicholson Baker’s lent muckraking tome, Double Fold). The parallel is a good one, given Ms. Thain’s allusion to “video prints.” Like microfilm, video (in this case a few labels on the reel cans indicate very limited VHS transfers) doesn’t even have a quarter of the lifespan that the original materials do, yet the originals are tossed out happily by the very librarians that society and public funding have charged with the preservation of knowledge.

Also, any kind of poor collection management that lead to print deterioration ( auto-load projectors, weak print-revision practices and the U of M’s admitted lack of temperature-controlled media storage) seems like a faulty line of reasoning: ‘We took such poor care of these, so now we’re going to throw them out.’

What the U of M has committed – knowingly or not is a repulsive library practice. Who’s to know what kind of valuable material was contained in those films, and whether or not original negatives for them are still extant elsewhere (very, very possibly not the case)? Certainly not us, now that the evidence is gone.

(BTW: Destructed films are usually recycled into acetate fire logs thanks to disposal services offered by Technicolor – representatives from which had no official comment and spoke to me with the kind of conspiratorial secrecy usually reserved for jaunts along the Washington Mall.)

– Walter Forsberg


It turns out a lone handful of about a hundred or so films were saved during the destruction of the University of Manitoba’s entire 16mm film collection. Many of these films reside in the Guy Maddin Collection currently being stored at the Winnipeg Film Group.


Clint Enns’ winnipeg stories: sacrificial memories

~ by cineflyer on April 5, 2011.

2 Responses to “The Great University of Manitoba 16mm Massacre”

  1. Liked your short very much Clint. As the beauty/importance of what was had come into focus/are realized, they are lost. Sad.

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