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‘The Birth of a Nation’ Documents History

We at the Library of Congress were distressed to find that William F. Gibson, chairman of the national board of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, sees the recent inclusion of D. W. Griffith’s 1915 film “The Birth of a Nation” in the National Film Registry as an insult to the NAACP and African-Americans in general (“Library of Congress Recognition Undeserved for ‘Birth of a Nation,’ ” Dec. 28).

There has clearly been some misunderstanding of both the Film Registry and the criteria for film preservation under that rubric. Created by Congress, the National Film Preservation Board promotes film preservation and annually proposes 25 films for inclusion in the Film Registry so they can be preserved as documents for future researchers in American history.

The board’s mandate goes beyond the Film Registry--it is now working on a comprehensive plan, involving the movie industry and all major film archives including the library’s, to tackle the long-neglected problem of our fast-deteriorating stock of classic American films. More than half the films produced here before 1950 no longer exist and many more are in danger.

Under library auspices, the 18-member board is made up of noted filmmakers, critics and academics, a diverse group reflecting the full range of achievement in the field. They nominate films for the Registry, but the final choice is up to the Librarian of Congress, James H. Billington. He bases his choices on the board’s recommendations and those of the library’s own film specialists.

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The board this year included “The Birth of a Nation” among its recommended films. The noted African-American director, John Singleton, a board member, told the Hollywood Reporter (Dec. 8) that he had personally nominated Griffith’s racist film for the registry as a “history lesson.”

As Billington emphasized when he announced the 1992 choices on Dec. 4, the selections should not be seen as the Academy Awards. As always, the selected films were chosen because they had “cultural, historical or aesthetic significance” for researchers and others interested in probing our social and cultural history. This standard means including some significant films that reflect repugnant points of view. Films, no less than books, constitute important evidence to be preserved.

As we see it, the selection and preservation of “The Birth of a Nation” is no insult to anyone. Nor is it an accolade to racism. As Singleton noted, the film is a vivid reminder of the dark side of American history. On the heroic side is the long struggle of the NAACP, whose archives of nearly 2 million documents and papers constitute the largest single collection in the Library of Congress’ sizable holdings of African-American history.

Preserving the record of both the good and the bad in the nation’s experience for future generations is central to the library’s role as “America’s memory,” a role supported by Congress and the American people for almost two centuries.

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JILL BRETT

Public Affairs Officer

The Library of Congress

Washington

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