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Billy Segal is almost pleased. After 22 years of working at the Israel Broadcasting Authority archive, 12 of them as its director, and six years of pitched battle, she can say that things are starting to move. About three weeks ago, Harvard University [whose Widener Library's Judaica collection has the world's largest archive of contemporary Israeli materials] and the IBA announced a joint agreement whereby the limping Israeli archive will be rescued and will undergo a process of digitization. The materials that have accumulated in the archive will be transferred to digital files.

"We'd already had a connection with Harvard for several years," relates Segal, "but with reference to digitization, the connection was made by Moti Amir from Israel Radio. They want to purchase all of the State of Israel's Judaica documentation, to have a copy of every Jewish-Israeli work there. You have to ask them why and whether they think our time is short here," she laughs.

The Harvard collection, she says, "has already bought from us in the past and they expressed a desire, out of academic integrity, to rescue the archive. Of course they are getting a treasure here, for which the payment is the funding of digitization. They will have a copy of the entire archive there."

Sadat crumbled, Begin was erased

Segal has been infected for years with the digitization bug. Her frustration in the face of the disintegration of the archive she directs is obvious. During a tour, she reaches out her hand and wipes away dust from the shelves. She peeks into a hallway, and excitedly discovers an old tape of a rare interview with writer S.Y. Agnon. The condition of the tape, like that of other precious items, is not clear. "Every time I brought the idea to the management, to the various managements, they all tied my hands," she relates. "My job, my mandate, is to save the archive. If we don't do something, there are materials that are going to be ruined. They will disappear."

This is an Israeli historical treasure trove that is not getting the treatment it deserves. "Anyone who is served by us sees the deterioration," says Segal. "I lectured at Haifa University, and I wanted to screen pictures of [late Egyptian president Anwar] Sadat visiting there. I was appalled. Part of the cassette is erased. The tape is crumbling. This is a loss. Another case is the documentation of [late prime minister Menachem] Begin returning from Camp David, which has simply been erased. The exit from Lebanon in 1985 has been saved only because Yehuda Kaisar used the sequence in a series he made. We are at a critical point, because most of the material still exists, and it is still possible to save it."

How will the transfer of the materials be carried out?

"We will have a steering committee that will decide on the priority items for digital transfer, based on the frequency of use, for example, or the fragility of the material. It has to be taken into account that there are formats that from the outset were not intended to be used for recording documentary films or entertainment programs. That was the case elsewhere in the world and we, too, have lost materials in this way. A great many mistakes were made. There was material that was intentionally erased."

Why?

"Elements in the management gave orders to recycle materials that were very expensive. Some were transferred to cassettes and some were erased entirely."

Perhaps the rejoicing is premature. This is not, after all, the first time that a process of digitization has been started at the IBA. A few years ago work was started on the project, but "sloppy management," as Segal describe it, and the failure to stand by the financial commitments led to its shelving. This time, too, despite the prestigious partner to the move, the project is liable to get stuck: Though Harvard University will fund the digitization, it is the Broadcasting Authority that will be responsible for creating the technological infrastructure. It it does not succeed in raising the money for that, the digitization will not be implemented this time either.

"There has never been a budget here for the archive," says Segal. "I feel very frustrated because I have been trying for years, but there hasn't been a strong political force, in the internal politics of the organization, that would see to the archive. Every management has agreed that it is necessary to take care of the archive and that it is a national treasure, but it has always been the lowest priority."

This order of priorities exists even though part of the IBA's income comes from the archive, which serves filmmakers and television productions as well as academic researchers. "This isn't the main part, but it is a large part," says Segal, "and they have never budgeted a part of the income for the archive. It's absurd."

$1,000 a minute

All of this will be less significant on the day the transfer of the archive to digital files is completed, a project for which an optimistic date is about five years down the road. In the meantime, Segal is continuing to direct the library in a high-handed way. So high that there are those who complain of tough treatment, scandalous prices (in the area of $1,000 for the use of one minute of broadcast) and a tendency to keep needed materials close to her chest.

Why in fact is the archive closed to the general public?

"The materials that are used are very precious, and our means are limited - there aren't enough employees to serve the public at large, nor are there sufficient viewing stations to give service [even] to students and researchers."

If the archive were open to the public, maybe there would be more money available for preservation, and more public awareness of the importance of the resource.

"Impossible. The existing technical means just don't allow accessibility to everyone. One of the ills of the archive is the repeated use of materials. We cannot allow the general public to use an analogue [as opposed to digital] and outdated archive like this one."

Among creative film and television people, there are also those who are not happy with its functioning and the cost.

"It really is expensive, but the tariff was set by a committee and there was a process of looking at the fees charged by other archives around the world. This costs money everywhere in the world. There are many archives abroad where they have seen the state of the materials and have stopped all usage so long as preservation has not been carried out. For me, it's hard to do something like that. So, I am pretty much collaborating with the destruction, because the moment we enforce limitations there will be an outcry. It isn't that I want to keep back the materials. My intention is that there will be accessibility and my initiative to digitize also derives from this need."

Filmmakers and television channels also complain that the IBA is in no hurry to release materials for the benefit of anyone else.

"This is really not true. It is possible to talk to producers and organizations that have worked here. I can recall one incident when our entertainment department was working on 'Song of Sixty' [a show that was broadcast last spring, when Israel celebrated its 60th birthday], and at the last minute at Keshet [one of the licensees of commercial Channel 2], they also decided to produce something like that. In this case there was an order from the director general that said, no, we use the materials first. There is logic to his decision, but they of course were angry."