Archive Researchers

Featuring: Matthew Fisher, Miami

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How did you become an archive researcher?

I owe my career to Martin Scorsese. I was watching the 2005 Academy Awards and Scorsese was presenting Roger Mayer with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. The video package mentioned how Mayer was the founding chair of the National Film Preservation Foundation. At the time I was a sophomore studying film history and theory at the University of Florida but knew absolutely nothing about film archives. I looked up the NFPF’s website and found a link to archives that had received grants, which included the Lynn and Louis Wolfson II Florida Moving Image Archive in my hometown of Miami, Florida. I inquired about a summer internship and was fortunate to work with Lou Ellen Kramer (who is still there) and then-curator/preservationist Barron Sherer, who taught me about researching, cataloging and screeners, as well as how to clean, splice, store, transfer and preserve film and videotape. 

After that great experience, I pretty much never considered doing anything else and have only worked in this world for the past 10 years.

You seem to be particularly fond of sports, and you have specialized in it.
Do you think being a specialized archive researcher is a major asset?

Being a specialized researcher can be a major asset, especially if it involves the type of material that has complicated copyright ownership. I find that building relationships is key when you often operate in a very small sphere and are dealing with a handful of people over and over again. I love what I do, but getting to work on sports projects is an added bonus as a sports fan. I have been very lucky to work on non-sports projects as well, and I really enjoy those opportunities because it gives me a chance to learn and expand my skill set in new ways.

You research a lot of different sports-related footage, that sometimes go far back: what has been the most difficult topic you have worked on?

I am currently working on a basketball project and surprisingly there have been many games from as recent as the 1980s where no one seems to have a copy of the broadcast – not the league, the broadcaster, the conference, the teams. It may not seem to be the most difficult topic, but it is brought me to a strange underground community of sports fans who personally record and trade games that don’t seem to exist anywhere else.

Working on sports-related archives can be very difficult, due to the copyrights, or the fact that some associations may no longer exist etc… How do you deal with these difficulties?

I try my best to keep up to date with who owns what and whether a certain league is likely to consider a certain type of request based on usage. Keeping track of rates is also important because sports rights are notoriously expensive and can quickly eat up an archival budget. Sports researchers are an even smaller group within this world, and I am fortunate to consider several of them to be very good friends. We keep in close contact and are always bouncing ideas off each other for how best to work with different leagues, what fees are like, and so on.

Nowadays, more and more archive researchers use the web, instead of going to physical places. What about you, how do you usually work?

For the first 9 years after I graduated college, my first and only job was working at HBO‘s archive department doing research and licensing for both internal productions, as well as licensing HBO material to outside productions. Since leaving HBO and New York City to move back to Miami and start my own independent operation, I do nearly all of my work out of my home office with my 2 dogs sleeping nearby. As there isn’t much personal interaction with people when you work from home, my preference is to get on the phone as often as possible instead of emailing. I think people on the other side of the conversation enjoy the more-human interaction as well, and it builds a closer relationship over time that can only help down the road.

And to conclude, could you tell us a bit more about the project you’re working on right now?

My biggest project right now is a history of basketball documentary series that is going to end up being somewhere around 15 hours long. I’ve been leading a team of great researchers and the project has brought me to interact with tons of archives, local affiliates, library collections and other resources that I hadn’t worked with before.

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