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Image of two moving image cameras on a street in Mississippi
Moving image cameras on a street in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Carol Highsmith, 2017

Archival Footage for Student Documentaries

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This post is by Suzanne Schulz, a 2023 Library of Congress Junior Fellow.

Before teaching, I worked in documentary film production. One of my priorities was to locate archival footage for budget-conscious documentary directors. Nowadays, as a history, film and humanities educator at a high school-early college, I continue to track down free archival footage. First, I guide my filmmaking students to brainstorm footage that would complement their ideas. Next, I explain how to search broadly around their topic, and I provide a list of resources for public domain archival footage. For each archival resource they find, I encourage students to think about the film’s creator and purpose. The Library of Congress is a great place to begin!

Student films in my classes have been wildly creative; they have also provided evidence, presented complex thoughts, and made arguments. As a teacher, I’ve witnessed students’ ease with filmmaking in many forms, from TikTok to gaming videos. I believe film production using archival footage is a culturally relevant pedagogical activity that allows young people to speak in one of their most comfortable languages: media. With a little digging, all students can find Library of Congress films that allow them to see themselves in the materials. By including archival footage from the Library of Congress’ film and video collection in their documentary projects, students end up analyzing historical film footage while learning techniques of filmmaking. All students need are good ideas, footage from, their phone-cameras, and free editing software.

Let’s begin with a hypothetical search. Imagine your student is making a film about African American women’s participation in labor and labor activism in the World War II era, with a focus on the story of her own grandmother, who worked in a factory in Chicago in the 1940s. In addition to recorded video interviews with her grandmother, your student could use these sources in their project:

The first source could be intercut with present-day footage of the student’s grandmother to convey that the dilemma of balancing labor and family obligations were on the minds of many women of the time.

The second two sources could be used as general B-roll footage with interview voiceover from the student’s grandmother, to show the environment in which the student filmmaker’s grandmother grew up.

Scrolling down from each of these records, you will find the link “Rights & Access.”  Students should click this tab often while searching for footage. Click on the links above, and you will see the message “The Library of Congress is not aware of any U.S. copyright or other restrictions in the vast majority of motion pictures in these collections. Absent any such restrictions, these materials are free to use and reuse.” This is good news. They are safe for students to use. If your student plans to screen their film in class or even at an end-of-semester school screening, they need not worry about obtaining the rights for the footage, but learning about public domain footage and fair use doctrine is an important part of any lesson in documentary filmmaking. This exercise also guides students to credit the footage in their end credits. And some of my students’ films have ended up in local film festivals!

Helpful terms:

  • B-roll – secondary footage apart from the main footage, often that shows general environment instead of main character’s life.
  • Industrial film – films that target an industry, educational, occupational or business audience. Industrial films are often a great source of B-roll footage.
  • Public domain and fair use – to learn more about these terms, visit the U.S. Copyright Office’s FAQ on Fair Use. 

Accessing and including these Library of Congress films can enhance student engagement with historical topics, improve media literacy, and offer opportunities for students to directly comment on primary sources.

How have you used Library of Congress films in your classes? Is it possible to include opportunities in your film, art, or history curriculums for student filmmaking assignments?

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