Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Offices raided in Cologne

This isn't surprising: earlier today, state prosecutors in Cologne raided the offices of the building and engineering firms that were building a new subway line adjacent to the Historical Archives of the City of Cologne, which collapsed on 3 March. The raids encompassed approximately 40 different offices, including that of the city's public transit organization, and the records and other evidence seized will be used to determine responsibility for the collapse.

The construction of the new subway line is widely believed to be the cause of the collapse, and officials in Cologne learned a few days ago that contractor logbooks documented the existence of persistent groundwater problems in the segment of the subway tunnel adjacent to the archives.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Anthony Clark and NARA

Over the past few weeks, the Archives & Archivists listserv has been home to a lengthy series of postings chronicling the shabby manner in which the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has treated Anthony Clark, who has sought access to records concerning NARA's Presidential libraries. I've followed the discussion on the listserv and on Mr. Clark's blog, and I have to conclude that, to say the least, some folks at NARA have some explaining to do -- and some corrective actions to undertake.

Owing to the manner in which the discussion was initiated and the tone that it has taken, to date I've refrained from commenting; I simply assumed that the listserv was experiencing yet another heat wave and that cooler, more rational discussion would eventually prevail. Unfortunately, to date, there is nary a cold front in sight. The discussion, which now involves the blogosphere as well, remains as heated as ever. The latest hotspot: ArchivesNext. Kate T. did a little independent digging and dispassionately presented her conclusions, and received harsh and, in my view, unwarranted criticism from Clark and his archival champion, Richard Cox.

FWIW, Kate and I spoke for a few minutes at a conference several years ago, and our subsequent interactions have consisted of posting sporadic comments on a Facebook group and on each other's blogs. I'm defending Kate not because she's a friend but because I think her well-reasoned, deliberative post was met with unwarranted hostility -- and because this sort of hostility has, in my view, consistently inhibited honest discussion of Clark's case.

The discussion on the listserv was initiated with the desire to spur the Society of American Archivists to respond to the situation, and to do so in a very specific way. It was also animated by the belief -- sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit -- that anyone who did not immediately take to the streets and demand that SAA do exactly as Clark and Cox desired was guilty of bad faith, bad judgment, or both.

As Terry at Beaver Archivist aptly pointed out this morning:
It is clear that the constant public pressure from a vocal and respected archivist, Richard Cox, helped move NARA to finally act in a responsible way towards Anthony Clark. The importance of this kind of public advocacy cannot be understated and there is merit to the argument that a group like SAA should have gotten into the game earlier and should not feel constrained by its ethics code from taking public positions issues like this.

But there have been other efforts working from other angles to make this happen as well. It is disingenuous to claim that these other efforts are meaningless.
Unfortunately, Cox and now, judging from his most recent statements, Clark himself seem to be of the opinion that anyone proposes a different means of achieving the desired end -- NARA's prompt disclosure of the records that Mr. Clark has requested -- is simply sucking up to NARA or seeking to sweep an inconvenient problem under the rug. They are thus alienating many people who would otherwise be outspokenly supportive of efforts to hold NARA accountable for its conduct.

It really does seem that there are a few staffers at NARA who fully deserve whatever acid criticism comes their way. However, when it comes to SAA and the archival profession as a whole, you can, as the old saying goes, catch a lot more flies with honey . . . .

Postscript, 2009-03-31: I was mulling over the NARA-FOIA-Clark-Cox-SAA situation during a few minutes of downtime this morning, and it struck me that the above post might leave the impression that I view Clark's problem as isolated and that prompt review and disclosure of the records that are the subject of his FOIA request will solve everything. From the start, I've suspected some broader changes at NARA will likely be needed. I meant to make this point in my original post, which was written at the end of an intense day (more about that tomorrow), but didn't.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Night Watch: a post-retirement project

After decades of research, retired Amsterdam municipal archivist Bas Dudok van Heel has conclusively identified the 18 men depicted in Rembrandt van Rijn's 1642 masterpiece, The Night Watch. The painting depicts members of a unit of the city's civic guard, which was responsible for helping to preserve order in times of unrest but also served as a social outlet for the city's prosperous male residents.

Dudok van Heel closely examined the painting, which includes a shield (added by another artist) listing the names of the men and contains a host of clues about the age and financial status of each subject. He then dove into the records of Amsterdam's municipal archives and looked for information that enabled him to sort out the men's identities. Owing to the detailed nature of the city's records, he was able not only to identify the men but also to determine their street addresses and, in some instances, occupations and artistic interests.

This research project took decades to complete, and a grievous mistake caused it to grind to a halt for a number of years:
Mr. Dudok van Heel . . . began the research in 1979 to aid the publication of a book, also called “The Night Watch.” The book’s author, Egbert Haverkamp-Begemann, told him to hang onto the research and suggested he publish it himself.

Mr. Dudok van Heel mistakenly threw out a manuscript based on the volumes of research in 1984 and, he said, he didn’t have the “energy and courage” to pick up the subject again for many years.
Dudok van Heel's research has been the subject of much media attention in the Netherlands, which is rightly proud of Rembrant and The Night Watch. Earlier this month, his findings were published in the newest edition of the Rijksmuseum Bulletin (subscription information). The Rijksmuseum has also posted to the Web an image of The Night Watch that identifies all of the men.

One of the things that drew me to archivy is that the profession encourages -- and is indeed dependent upon -- the accumulation of knowledge about records and about the context in which they were created. In our society, experience and the perspective that it lends are all too often devalued. Older workers are all too often dismissed as "past it" -- in some cases because of ageism and in others because doing so makes it easier to replace them with younger, less experienced, and thus cheaper employees. However, this attitude seems to be less prevalent within the world of archives: although the field is by no means immune to the cultural influences and economic pressures that can derail the careers of older archivists, it is also home to many, many people who start or complete ambitious projects in their 60's, 70's, and beyond.

Bas Dudok van Heel's post-retirement project may be unusual in that it has attracted global attention, but its scope and the depth of knowledge that it required certainly aren't. There are lots and lots of other retired archivists who are drawing upon -- and expanding -- their stores of knowledge by conducting research, teaching workshops and graduate-level courses, consulting, writing professional manuals, and doing all sorts of other interesting and significant things. I'm looking forward to following in their footsteps.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

2009 Best Practices Exchange

FYI, the fourth Best Practices Exchange (BPE) will be held at the University at Albany, SUNY, on September 2-4, 2009. The Best Practices Exchange brings together state government librarians, archivists, records managers, and other information professionals and enables them to discuss issues, challenges, and solutions to managing digital state government information. More information about the 2009 Best Practices Exchange will be posted to the BPE Web site as it becomes available.

Monday, March 23, 2009

"Do we need archivists in Ghana?"

American archivists have long struggled to explain why it's important to preserve historical records of enduring value. We're not the only archivists who struggle to do to so. Sammy Dzandu, an archivist in Ghana, recently undertook an (admittedly unscientific) poll concerning the importance of archivists in Ghanaian society. He found an all-too-familiar mixture of ignorance and indifference:
According to one of the interviewees, once something had become useless, the best thing to do was to discard it. It was therefore not necessary to employ archivists, whose duties were to take care of unwanted things.

Another person said archivists should not complain of unemployment because there were many waste-management companies and since archivists were expected to manage old and unwanted things, those companies could readily employ them.
After outlining what archivists do -- identify, acquire, preserve, and provide access to records of lasting value -- he succinctly tackles the popular misconception that archivists work with useless old things:
. . . Medical researchers use archives to study the patterns of diseases. Historians and genealogists rely on archival sources to analyze past events to reconstruct family histories. Authors also use archives to acquire a feel for the people and times about which they write. Businesses use archival records to improve their public relations and to promote their new products. Engineers do not joke with their archival drawings and manuals especially when it comes to maintaining their equipment. Legally, archives are used to establish claims to lands and other privileges. Unfortunately, some people do not attach any importance to records and for that matter, those who manage them.

There have been land and chieftaincy disputes in many parts of the country resulting in loss of lives and property. Such disputes could be prevented or minimized if proper records were kept. How could we tell whether one is really qualified to be an heir to a throne or a skin if the necessary legal and historical records . . . are non-existent? It is not surprising that many people take advantage of our inability to keep proper records to forcefully but cunningly snatch our properties from us.
Mr. Dzandu's explanation of Ghana's need for archivists might be a bit startling to many American archivists: when the subject of land disputes arises, we tend to think of protracted legal battles, not bloodshed. However, the situation that he describes would doubtless be familiar to people living in many, many places throughout the world. Good recordkeeping is an integral component of the rule of law, and those of us who live in societies that have long drawn upon the documentary record when resolving disputes sometimes take for granted the relative peace and stability that we enjoy. We shouldn't.

Kudos to Mr. Dzandu for making the case for the importance of archives in such visceral terms -- and kudos to all of the Ghanaian commenters who have voiced their support for his position.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

More thoughts on Cologne

I somehow missed this Der Spiegel article, which was published last week and which highlights the monumental challenges that confront the archivists and conservators leading the recovery effort at the site of the Historical Archive of the City of Cologne. The good news is that as much as 25 percent of the repository's holdings had already been recovered. The bad news is that the weather has not cooperated and that many of the recovered records will require intensive conservation treatment:

. . . The archivists are engaged in a race against time. Soon after the building collapsed, rain began falling on the ruins. Rubble is being brought to a dry warehouse so that workers can carefully sift through it in the search for documents. Once paper gets wet, though, damaging mold quickly sets in. Archive material is being sent to restoration facilities around the country where they will be flash frozen and then stored for two years before they can be cleaned.

It is an immense project, and one which will take years, if not decades, to complete. A restoration workshop in the city of Münster, for example, can restore up to 150 meters worth of documents per year. The material in the Cologne archive, however, took up fully 30 kilometers of shelf space. In addition, Markus Stumpf, who heads up the archival office in Münster, told Handelsblatt that "the personnel necessary for such a catastrophe simply doesn't exist."

Adding to the difficulties is the fact that many of the documents housed in the Cologne archive were parchment, instead of paper. "The parchment used for deeds in the Middle Ages is extremely sensitive to water," Jan op de Hipt, head restorer for the Hamburg state library, told the Hamburger Abendblatt. "Parchment is dried animal skin. When it comes into contact with water, it becomes very soft and begins to shrink."

The recovery effort is in its earliest stages, and the need for facilities, supplies, and expert personnel will not abate in a few weeks or months. If you are interested in helping, Archivalia and Salon Jewish Studies have compiled and translated lots of information for prospective volunteers and donors. Also, Frank Sobiech posted some additional information in a 10 March comment on this blog and Mark added another contact in an 11 March comment. Thanks to both of them for this information.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

"Archivists Job Description" video

Wondering what we archivists do on the job? Need to explain your job to friends and relatives? This clip may help.

This video was put together by GadBall, a service that automatically distributes job-seekers' resumes to online job sites. In an effort to raise its online profile, GadBall has created almost 600 short "job description" videos and placed them on YouTube; I didn't know GadBall existed until I started searching YouTube a few minutes ago, so its strategy may be paying off.

Tired of working with records? If you've always thought about becoming a ship's captain, a motorcycle mechanic, or a dental lab technician, you might want to check out some of GadBall's other videos . . . .

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Thoughts on Cologne

I somehow missed an interesting commentary that appeared last week in the English-language section of Die Welt's Web site. The popular and official attitudes toward archives that Hildegard Stausberg identifies are by no means unique to Germany:
There are certain words that tend not to engage very much sympathy in a person, and "archive" has traditionally been one of them. It is generally associated with something dried out and perhaps a little dull. Could it be that the collapse of the Cologne city archives building will mark a change in this mentality in Germany?
Noting that "the narrowing of German history to the twelve revolting years of Nazi rule" is yielding to a fuller understanding of the nation's past, Stausberg highlights how the holdings of the Historical Archive of the City of Cologne contributed to this development:
Heinrich Böll’s original school grades, the birth records of Konrad Adenauer, the scores of Jacques Offenbach, Sulpiz Bisserée’s Cathedral designs, the diary of the 16th Century alderman Heinrich von Weinsheim were all buried in the rubble. Merely the example of the Cologne “Schreinsbücher”(business records of plots of land) allow a glimpse at the scope of Cologne’s city history within the larger narrative of Germany; the records were a predecessor to land registration and therefore belong to the foundation of German law. And it only becomes clear in the instant that it disappears that the ruin of the largest city archive north of the Alps wasn’t only significant locally: Cologne’s catastrophe has European dimensions.
All too often, historical records really aren't missed or thought about until they've been lost or destroyed. I suspect that many Cologne residents who gave little thought to the Historical Archive while it was still standing are starting to realize that their city has suffered a staggering blow, and that many other people throughout Germany and the rest of Europe are beginning to grasp the enormity of what just happened.

We archivists have always tried to convey to the public, in plain and viscerally affecting terms, the importance of historical records and the cultural, legal, and economic losses that occur when archives are destroyed. As Stausberg points out, the disaster in Cologne may help to make the case for us:
What lessons can we take away from such a tragedy? The ruling school of thought in the Federal Republic of Germany has so far operated on the assumption that something stored in a distinguished city archive is safe – but the war generation [which kept the city's records safe despite heavy Allied bombing] certainly didn’t see things that way. Archivists and restorers will certainly do more work to document the treasures in future, both within Germany and abroad; copies of some sort will have to be made.
These are good, broadly applicable lessons, and the cost of learning them has been horrifically high. We should strive to reinforce them whenever possible.

Bad news from Cologne

A few hours ago, recovery personnel found a second body in the rubble in Cologne. Although the authorities are waiting for the autopsy results to confirm the victim's identity, it is likely that the body is that of the second young man who went missing after the Historical Archive of the City of Cologne collapsed on 3 March. What horrible news for the young man's loved ones; keep them in your thoughts and prayers.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Documenting President Obama [satire]

Last week, The Onion published an article that uses a fictional National Archives project to comment on both the elasticity of truth in the digital era and popular fascination with the 44th President of the United States:
In what is being hailed as a breakthrough in the field of historical record-keeping, the National Archives announced Monday that it would immediately begin outfitting Barack Obama's chest, limbs, and face with an array of motion capture sensors for use in preserving a 3-D account of his time as president.

"The presidency of Mr. Obama is truly a landmark event, and I can think of no better way to honor it than with this $2.5 billion advanced digital-imaging project," acting archivist Adrienne Thomas told reporters. "Not only will our sensors provide unprecedented moment-to-moment documentation of a sitting U.S. president, but they will also give the American people the breathtaking realism and seamless layer animation they have come to expect."

. . . . "Our 78-person team is committed to capturing each and every nuance of the Obama administration," Vicon CEO Douglas Reinke said. "Years from now, historians will be able to access high-quality images of what the former president might have looked like while he was, say, meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff on April 3, 2009, or tying his shoelaces on the afternoon of June 3, 2011."
The article goes on to state that the sensors will be incorporated into an elastic bodysuit and that President Obama:
will be required to wear the motion capture device at all times during his presidency, barring a few minutes each day to shower and change into a fresh bodysuit. In addition, the president has been instructed to refrain from performing any activities that might cause the sensors to malfunction, such as running, breathing heavily, or letting his core temperature rise above 99.4 degrees Fahrenheit.
The Secret Service will be required to ensure that the President remains in front of a large green-screen background at all times.

Wittingly or unwittingly, The Onion highlights the profoundly unarchival nature of this project, which doesn't involve caring for records that others create during the course of doing business or keeping only the most significant records; not even the President warrants this sort of exhaustive (and invasive) archival documentation. And why worry about authenticity when the infinite flexibility of reality in the digital age is so . . . entertaining?
Many scholars have also praised a feature of the motion capture technology that would allow future generations to digitally alter the president . . . by retroactively modifying clothing, facial features, skin tone, and even accessories.

"Imagine being able to see what it might have looked like had Obama been wearing a bow tie when he delivered his first State of the Union address," American historian Joseph Ellis said. "Or if he'd been sporting a luxurious mustache while sitting down with the prime minister of Japan. The possibilities for customization are endless."
I suspect that most people who read this piece had a quick laugh and moved on. However, an archivist could certainly use it a springboard for explaining to non-archivist friends and relatives just what it is we do and why we do it. And the "photos" of President Obama in his motion-capture bodysuit have to be seen to be believed . . . .

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Recovery efforts in Cologne

Those of us whose German is weak owe a debt of gratitude to Frank Schloeffel at Salon Jewish Studies, who is translating into English Klaus Graf's Archivalia updates on the recovery effort at the Historical Archives of the City of Cologne.

The latest translated post brings some good news: three shifts of 20 volunteer archivists are working non-stop at the site, and "up to 15-20% of the archival inventory" has been recovered. Among the materials recovered are two manuscripts written by medieval German theologian Albertus Magnus, dozens of medieval codices, and four of the five volumes of the 16th-century chronicle written by Cologne Councilman Hermann von Weinsberg. Of course, the condition of the records varies widely: some are in astonishingly good shape, while others are wet, torn, or both, and others are likely unsalvageable.

Some amazing photos of the recovery effort and recovered materials are available via Bild (mouse over the image to make scrolling arrows appear), the Kölnische Rundschau, and the Express; American readers should note that the Express page may include content that would likely be considered NSFW in the United States.

(Hat tip: Felipe Diez of Solidarity Köln Historisches Archiv)

Sunday, March 8, 2009

More on the Historical Archive of the City of Cologne

The news from Cologne is, in many respects, profoundly disheartening. Earlier today, recovery personnel found the body of one of the young men who had been missing after the Historical Archive of the City of Cologne collapsed on March 3, and the authorities believe that the other missing man is also dead.

The archival losses are also staggering:
The archive's collection of original documents included thousands from Cologne's golden age. The founding charter of the University of Cologne, signed in 1388, was inside, along with the documents that established Cologne as a free imperial city under Emperor Friedrich III in 1475. Two of the four manuscripts in the hand of Albertus Magnus, considered the greatest German theologian of the Middle Ages, were kept in the archive's rare books collection.

For historians trying to reconstruct the past, the greatest loss may be the more quotidian papers: Tens of thousands of receipts issued by the city government between 1350 and 1450, for example, or the 358 volumes of decisions and minutes of the Cologne City Council dating back 700 years.

The archives also contained the personal papers of almost 800 prominent German authors, politicians and composers, including Konrad Adenauer, the first post-war chancellor of Germany. The manuscripts and letters of Nobel Prize winner Heinrich Böll and Jacques Offenbach, a 19th century cellist and opera composer, were stored at the archive. Weimar Republic politician Wilhelm Marx and German-Jewish composer Ferdinand Hiller were among the other notables whose collections have been buried under tons of concrete.
The German archival community is working feverishly to salvage as much of this priceless material as possible, and my thoughts and prayers are with them. Archivists working at the site have already recovered some documents. The weather is not cooperating and the site itself is dangerous, but they press on nonetheless. Other archivists and conservators are in the beginning stages of organizing a mammoth recovery effort and collecting researchers' scanned images or digital photographs of materials held by the Historical Archive.

American archivists concerned about the fate of the Historical Archives owe a special debt of gratitude to Klaus Graf, who has tirelessly compiled and shared news about the disaster and the recovery effort. Many of us in the United States first learned about the catastrophe in Cologne from his March 3 messages to the Archives & Archivists listserv, and his Archivalia posts have been a crucial source of information for archivists around the world. Dr. Graf is also the administrator of a new Facebook group, Solidarity Köln Historisches Archiv, to publicize developments in Cologne, direct prospective volunteers to the organizations coordinating various aspects of the response, and highlight organizations that are accepting financial contributions for the victims' families and for the recovery effort; thanks also to Felipe Diez for starting this group.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Collapse of the Historic Archive of the City of Cologne

The building housing the Historic Archive of the City of Cologne (Historisches Archiv der Stadt Köln) is now a pile of rubble. Fortunately, staffers, researchers, and onsite construction workers inside the building were alarmed by strange noises and left immediately before the structure collapsed earlier today. However, at the time of this writing, three people who were in buildings adjacent to the archives are still missing.

At present, the cause of the building's collapse is unknown. A new subway line is being built under the street in front of the facility, but the section of the tunnel adjacent to the building is apparently complete. The building may also have had structural problems.

Until today, the repository in Cologne was the largest municipal archives in Germany. It held 500,000 photographs and 65,000 documents dating back to 922, including manuscripts by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and materials relating to 20th-century writer Heinrich Böll. Government officials have promised to help salvage the archives' records, but street-level and aerial photographs of the building's remains suggest that many of the records are beyond recovery.

My heart goes out to the families and friends of the missing people, and I hope that all of them were able to escape before the building collapsed or are rescued as quickly as possible. My heart also goes out to the staff of the archives; the loss of records under one's care is incredibly painful. Finally, my heart goes out to the people of Cologne, who have lost a substantial portion of their recorded history.

I suspect that I'm not alone in wanting to send a message of support to my colleagues in Cologne, but at present I'm not sure how to do so. The Historical Archives of the City of Cologne has a "friends" organization, but its very small site lacks an e-mail contact; it does have a PDF copy of a flier about the organization, but the mailing address on the flier is that of the archives itself. I also checked the the Web site of the Federation of German Archivists (Verband deutscher Archivarinnen und Archivare e.V.), but at present it doesn't have any information relating to the collapse. I'll keep looking, and if I find an appropriate point of contact I'll be sure to post an update. And if anyone out there in cyberspace finds a suitable contact, please let me know.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Film review: The Young and the Dead

The former Hollywood Memorial Park, which opened in 1899, became the final resting place for many stars of Hollywood’s golden age, among them Douglas Fairbanks, Tyrone Power, and Rudolph Valentino. However, it teetered on the brink of bankruptcy in the mid-1990s, and some families moved the remains of their loved ones from its untended grounds.

Two Midwestern entrepreneurs, Tyler and Brent Cassity, bought the cemetery in 1997, rechristened it Hollywood Forever Cemetery, and set about transforming the grounds and, they hoped, American "death care" itself. The Young and the Dead (2003), which focuses largely upon the media-savvy Tyler Cassity, chronicles their efforts to do so.

Archivists ought to find Tyler Cassity an interesting subject. He has the desire to preserve evidence of the past that propels many people to enter the archival profession, and he sees cemeteries as having a mission akin to that of archives:
Cassity: We believe that cemeteries are libraries of lives, and if we don’t capture the life that’s written on that stone, then we’ve failed at that task. So that three or four generations from now, after people who might have remembered that person are gone, that person should be able to speak for themselves, to tell their story and to be remembered. We think we fail as cemeterians if people are forgotten.

Interviewer: And how do you do that?

Cassity: Through modern technology.
Hollywood Forever has a film crew that works with survivors to conduct interviews, digitize photos, and create a short film about each decedent; it also encourages people who are planning their own services to sit for interviews and gather materials well in advance of their demise. Completed films, which Hollywood Forever calls LifeStories, are shown at funeral services and can be accessed by anyone at any time via the Internet or kiosks stationed throughout the cemetery grounds, and Hollywood Forever asserts that these films will be preserved in perpetuity.

The Young and the Dead emphasizes the cemetery’s only-in-Hollywood status as a tourist destination and its clear relationship to the city’s celebrity culture. Cassity and his Hollywood Forever colleagues were clearly inspired by the capsule biographies that television news organizations create whenever a prominent politician or cultural figure dies, and one of the cemetery’s film producers explicitly connects LifeStories to Andy Warhol’s oft-quoted prediction that in the future everyone will enjoy 15 minutes of fame.

Of course, professional archivists will have some questions about this enterprise. What kind of software is being used to create these LifeStories? Has Hollywood Forever developed any sort of plan for ensuring that these films will remain accessible over time, or has it deferred making such decisions? The Young and the Dead is silent about this aspect of Hollywood Forever’s work, as is the LifeStories Web site, which simply notes the existence of a "Forever Endowment Care Fund."

Archivists should keep in mind that Hollywood Forever is in sync with the larger culture: owing to the availability of inexpensive and easy-to-use hardware and software, short films and slideshow-style presentations are an increasingly common component of contemporary memorial services. At least a few of these productions will invariably make their way into archives, and future archivists will likely find themselves dispensing advice to families who find that technological change has rendered these cherished mementos inaccessible.

Cassity’s interest in the past also extends to Hollywood Forever itself. He has pored through the records of former owner Jules Roth, and what records they are! Roth was a key player in the oil swindles that beset the Los Angeles area in the early 20th century and served time in San Quentin as a result. He diverted money from the cemetery to fuel his globetrotting lifestyle and scattered the erotica he collected on his journeys throughout the records. He refused to allow Hattie McDaniel, the first African-American performer to win an Oscar, to be buried in his cemetery. He also hired "operatives" who spied upon his employees; their reports detail workers’ off-the-job activities (one groundskeeper bragged about "a wild night in the Drake Hotel with three girls, two sailors, and a Marine") and gossip about Roth.

Archivists will not like seeing Cassity scatter Roth’s records throughout his office or Executive Vice President Bill Obrock smoking while handling them, but they ought to appreciate the film’s use of business records to highlight Roth’s colorful life.

The Young and the Dead is ultimately a group portrait of Cassity and his Hollywood Forever colleagues, some of whom have been his friends since childhood. All of them really seem to enjoy preserving people’s memories and spending their days surrounded by Hollywood Forever’s bucolic splendor, and their encounters with death and grieving survivors seem to have deepened their appreciation of and zest for life.

The film is similarly pleasant, sincere, and thoughtful. It nonetheless lacks a certain something, and the hole at its center stems from the decision of directors Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman’s to focus so tightly upon Tyler Cassity. Cassity comes off as a well-read and reflective person who wears his good looks lightly, but his demeanor is so calm and reserved that one can’t help but wonder what lies beneath his contemplative, articulate exterior.

A quick Web search will only intensify these questions. In mid-2008, officials in Texas and Missouri took over three businesses operated by Tyler and Brent Cassity and their father Douglas, who -- like Jules Roth -- spent time in prison after the collapse of an investment scheme he ran. Regulators in at least 10 states are trying to sort out the complicated and possibly fraudulent insurance arrangements that supported the prepaid funeral plans that the Cassitys sold, and funeral home directors in 19 states may experience ruinous losses as a result of these faulty plans. Moreover, the LifeStories concept, trumpeted endlessly in The Young and the Dead, may have been created to attract media attention; even if it isn’t, the proliferation of YouTube, iMovie, PowerPoint, and other low- and no-cost digital tools virtually guarantees that the LifeStories program won’t generate huge revenue streams. Tyler Cassity, who graciously cooperated with the writers who profiled him in the Atlantic, the New Yorker, Time, and a host of other publications, no longer answers media inquiries.

Despite its shortcomings and the scandal that now engulfs the Cassity family, The Young and the Dead is nonetheless a worthwhile examination of recent changes in the "death care" industry and memorialization of the dead. Archivists and other viewers interested in American social and business history should find that its merits outweigh its faults.