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Karen Buckley safeguards film and history at NGS

A picture is worth a thousand words, so the saying goes.  And moving pictures add even more dimension to a story. Indeed, how would our view of history change if we had only still images to describe pivotal moments in our past – Bob Ballard’s discovery of the Titanic, or Leakey’s unearthing of key jawbones that would lead to naming a new species of man?  As archives supervisor at National Geographic’ s digital motion library, Karen Buckley ’03 aims to safeguard our treasured images along with the precious history they hold.

In addition to managing staff at the archive, Buckley oversees collection management and preservation activities for National Geographic’s century-old archive which includes more than a half million film and video assets.  Those assets translate to about 470,000 hours of video including 26 thousand film reels. Buckley’s goal at the digital motion library is to not only protect film from decay, but make film more accessible to in-house users for new productions and projects.

Buckley says even people at National Geographic Society are surprised to learn about the early footage in the collection. The earliest film dates to 1903 – the failed “Ziegler Polar Expedition” which documents the early stages of the mission – before the crew was stranded two years in the Arctic Circle. Some other examples of footage in her charge include:

“Americans on Everest” (1965) captures the first time Americans reached the summit of the Himalayan giant. It was also the first National Geographic special to air on CBS, which reported 20 million viewers.

“Miss Goodall and the Wild Chimpanzees” (1965) follows Jane Goodall in the Tanzanian Gombe Stream Game Reserve, 1960 – 1965.

A lecture film shot by acclaimed photographer Robert M. Campbell, “Mountain Gorilla” (1967-1972), shows Dian Fossey living among and studying gorillas in central Africa’s Virunga Mountains.

So how does an English and theatre arts major segue to film archivist? Buckley says it all started with Vincent Hausmann’s film studies class. As a long-time film and TV enthusiast and then sophomore at Furman, Buckley successfully appealed her way into the class traditionally reserved for juniors. Buckley says, “The combination of film history and theory, the screenings, and Dr. Hausmann’s own passion for film made it such an amazing and intellectually stimulating class.”

Throughout the semester, Buckley and Hausmann forged a strong student/professor bond that would prove instrumental in internships and post graduate studies. The summer following Buckley’s film studies class, Hausmann provided connections that helped secure her an internship at the Oxygen Network in New York City. She remembers her time there well.  “That was an incredible experience … being in New York for the first time and living there for a summer. I learned so much about television production – how the industry works and video editing software.” Buckley also holds the dubious distinction of being one degree from Kevin Bacon, having met him on location for a program Oxygen Network taped in Central Park.

Still very much vested in Buckley’s academic and professional future even after she graduated, Hausmann encouraged Buckley to apply to graduate school. At American University in Washington, D.C., she earned her MFA in film and electronic media. Through an internship at her eventual employer, National Geographic, Buckley was introduced to the remote imaging department where she digitized and logged “Crittercam” footage –critter’s- eye-view video that reveals behaviors of creatures great and small. “I was able to work with some incredible footage,” she says.

Following her work in remote imaging as an intern then assistant editor, Buckley applied for the position in film archive at National Geographic, which she was more than eager to fill. “It combined my interest in film and television with my passion for film preservation,” she says.

Looking back, Buckley says she owes her success to her liberal arts education. “Having a good foundation in English, the sciences and history comes in pretty handy here, she says.” More than a decade since her Furman days, Buckley also credits Hausmann for where she is today. The two remain close friends to this day, she says; and he even attended Buckley’s wedding in late 2012.

Buckley says her biggest accomplishment at National Geographic was launching the Film Preservation Project which she runs with the help of two colleagues. Valuable film that had never before been transferred to digital media is preserved through the initiative. “Bones of the Bounty,” for example, is a 1958 film by renowned National Geographic photographer Luis Marden. It depicts his underwater discovery of the Bounty which met its demise in 1789. Films like these are featured in monthly screenings (dubbed “gems from the archive”) for National Geographic Society staff.

Educating the public and the Society about the historic film collection is just one way Buckley finds satisfaction in her work. She is also inspired by what she does for posterity. She says, “By preserving these films, we preserve cultures and ways of life that no longer exist. The films capture moments in time and keep them alive for us to study and learn from. I am fortunate to work in an organization that allows me to play a role in the preservation of history for generations to come.”

Last updated January 1, 1970
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Clinton Colmenares
News & Media Relations Director