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Pondering the Importance of Paper: A Summer Internship with Scribe Video Center

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Pondering the Importance of Paper: A Summer Internship with Scribe Video Center

By Brittany Greene.

This summer I was granted the wonderful opportunity to work with Scribe Video Center. I saw the job opportunity through an email blast from Penn's History of Art Department. Scribe is a community-oriented media hub located in West Philadelphia, only blocks away from campus. Founded by filmmaker and MacArthur Genius grant recipient Louis Massiah in 1982, Scribe produces films, offers workshops, lecture series, and film screenings amongst many other resources for the community. Their main programs include Community Visions, Documentary History Project for Youth, Precious Places Community History Project, Muslim Voices of Philadelphia, Producers’ Forum, Storyville, and Street Movies! To learn more, visit

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Some, I hope, may be familiar with Massiah’s documentary The Bombing of Osage Avenue, which was nationally broadcasted on PBS in 1987. The film observes local responses to the bomb that police dropped in West Philadelphia in 1985, causing the destruction of an entire city block. In targeting the black-liberation group MOVE, the police’s assault resulted in eleven people dead and sixty-five homes destroyed. Professor Karen Beckman, who interviewed me for the internship, has written a wonderful piece about the film, Massiah, and Scribe in this summer’s edition of Film Quarterly.

Two other students and I were given the primary task of initiating a digitization project of Scribe’s paper files. We worked for over nine weeks on the archival project. We began our process by meeting with professional archivists from Penn Libraries. From there we wrote up a methodology of how we planned to execute our work. We formulated filing codes and created finding aids for future researchers. We discovered scripts, storyboards, images, flyers, and other items related to the films. Once sorting through the contents, we determined which things ought to be scanned, and which should just be catalogued. After we finished a file, we transferred it into an acid-free folder to ensure its longevity. As a lover of all things old-school, I enjoyed seeing 90’s fonts and even older, historical maps of Philadelphia neighborhoods. Thanks to Google Maps, I couldn’t remember the last time I held a physical one.

Scribe’s records went as far back as 1984. Since text lacks tone, I do not say 1984 in amusement of how long ago it was. I mention it to solely to try and make one visualize the amount of paper material one (or an institution) might acquire in thirty years. It’s a staggering amount.

In helping Scribe archive their records I began thinking about paper in the digital age. I thought about how my wallet is constantly stuffed with coffee receipts I don’t need, and yet some paper is sacred, such as our birth certificates or social security cards. The universal accessibility that the internet has granted us can easily result in overlooking the importance of paper. What an ephemeral material, with the power to be extremely important, or extremely miniscule!

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While at Scribe, I was enrolled in an excellent course surveying the institution of the art museum. In class, we read the infamous case of the Elgin Marbles. Fragments of the Parthenon had been taken off by the 7th Earl of Elgin while Greece was still under control of the Ottoman Empire. Elgin then sold the marble sculptures to the British Museum in 1816, where they have been ever since. Greece has formally requested that the marbles be returned to their homeland, but Britain has declined. Scholars have tried to determine, legally, to which nation the marbles belong. The original contract Elgin received was written in Turkish, and has since been lost by Ottoman officials. Only an Italian translation exists today. Though it may be a (reasonable) stretch, I couldn’t help but wonder if the marbles might have been returned by now, had the original contract been properly preserved. 

To some, the task of scanning and cataloguing hundreds of folders may seem menial. The act isn’t necessarily exhilarating, nor is it unimportant. If the Elgin Marble example was too hypothetical for you, think about how much easier an index of a book—or a searchable PDF—has made your life. Now surely you can see the need for cataloguing and digitization!

Brittany Greene is a rising senior at the University of Pennsylvania studying Art History with a concentration in everything beautiful. She is currently and proudly researching the life of Marian Anderson for the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books, and Manuscripts division of Van Pelt Library. She’s from Brooklyn, NY, and she loves analytical thinking. 

Edited by Mariah Macias.