A picture of Vancouver’s past preserved by CBC’s Preston

Vancouver Archives photo: Granville Street
Granville Street circa 1960s – photo: Vancouver Archives

Colin Preston, the film and media archivist at CBC Vancouver located at 700 Hamilton Street, is an unsung hero for many. According to Colin, he's sitting on the "best historical archive of footage west of Toronto," and the most comprehensive catalog of footage featuring Vancouver's history. The trouble is, right now most of us don't have access to it.

Tonight, the DOXA documentary festival is staging a fundraiser at the CBC Studios (full disclosure, I am a director on DOXA’s board). The theme is NOW & AGAIN: Vancouver’s History in Moving Pictures, and the event will take advantage of some of Preston’s coveted CBC archive footage.

Colin came to my rescue about 16 years ago (!) when I shot some 16mm footage for a TV show opening I directed (which I think still holds up), and was stuck without a budget for film transfer.

It was then that I first met the legendary Mr. Preston, and with our paths crossing again I decided to find out the state of CBC's archives, and where it might go in the Age of Digital Mash-ups. It was precisely the right question to ask him – if he had a magic wand, what would Preston do with all those amazing film and media archives he looks after?

"I've thought about this long and hard," says Preston. "If I could wave a magic wand there's no question I would get the whole inventory out there for people to get their hands on. A lot of the heritage of this country is held here in the CBC Vancouver archives, and we should get it out and let the mash-ups start to happen."

Colin is quick to note that we own this stuff, and it should be eventually returned to the public domain. "You paid for it. Just like the films from TVO, KNOW-TV, the NFB and even films produced by the Department of National Defense," remarks Preston. We'll all benefit from giving the public access to these archives. The Archives of Australia are doing it, the BBC is doing it. The evolution is to move the analog world into the digital realm."

"The good thing is that our ideas about intellectual property are adapting to suit the times. I have no fear that issues of copyright apply here," says Colin. "One of the most fascinating revelations came in Romania, where the film archives of the despot Nicolae Ceausescu were revealed to citizens. You saw all that self-serving propaganda produced for that demagogue. The reaction from Romanians has been both bittersweet and sardonic. Most importantly people have recognized how absurd life under the dictator was.

"Nothing brings a government faster than ridicule."

Preston's goal, he says, is to "get it all out there." But the problem we face is what digital format do you choose? For example, the CBC opted a decade ago for Real technology for their audio streaming and archives. Today almost no one uses Real players, creating an early obsolescence for much of that material.

"We have a lot of footage on a variety of formats, and it does create complications," says Preston. "We're not talking wax cylinders, but formats just over 20 years old like Betamax, or 2-inch videotape. To me the most reliable archives are still our 16mm films. There will always be some way to get those films transfered."

I asked Colin what we were missing by not having access to the CBC archives. "It means the mirror is less clear, the context of where our city came from is also less clear," he offers. "Vancouver at one time in its history was like the world of Ward & June Cleaver – all single-family homes and 1950s innocence. We also have seen the ethnic make-up of the city transform. But we're missing the richness of voices who once told the stories about our region."

"There was a creative class in this city who, and I know it's hard to imagine today, didn't have email. They didn't have Toronto whispering in their ear daily, and therefore had an independence," says Preston. "What was linear and analog then, is now non-linear and digital today. Seeing that contrast is amazing."

Preston points out that there are other great archives in our city. The UBC Archives are becoming more impressive, and the City of Vancouver Archives have become something to celebrate, he says. Colin was quick to give credit to senior managers who in the late 1990s made the decision to make sure that these archives were well attended.

I asked Colin what was next. "Retirement!" he laughed. So what happens when he moves on? Will someone else be the steward of this important repository of Vancouver historical information? Yes, he hopes.

"Ultimately we need someone to make all those connections, and create the record," adds Preston. "Think about all the digital history Vancouver is creating. For example, videogames at EA Sports, our movie business is now a quarter century old, and Microsoft is back here. To me, all I can see is the opportunities."

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If you are interested in supporting DOXA, tickets for tonight’s event will be sold at the door. The address is 700 Hamilton Street and the event begins at 7:30pm. Tickets which include food and beverages are only $35.

- post by Mike

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