CBS did nothing to get me in the holiday spirit this year.  In fact, I’ve been mad at them since October, when I read a notice that they planned to air two colorized episodes of I Love Lucy the week before Christmas.  Although I was not alive to watch this comedy when it first aired in the 1950s, I grew up watching the syndicated episodes with my family, and I came to cherish the wacky predicaments into which Lucy entangled herself (and usually also Ethel) each week and to admire the versatility displayed by Lucille Ball in bringing this character to life.  The show was groundbreaking in many ways for its time, including depicting an interracial marriage, acknowledging the pregnancy of Lucille Ball in real-time in 1952, and providing such a powerful platform to a woman.  All of these things are accomplished in the native black-and-white, so I see no reason to monkey around with the past by colorizing these episodes.  Needless to say, I boycotted the airing of these episodes.

Apparently, many do not share my disdain for inauthentic television.  Variety reported that the December 20th episodes were watched by nearly 9 million people, easily winning its timeslot.  I don’t pretend to hold a superior position just because I can differentiate the original I Love Lucy episodes from the newly aired versions, but this has given me pause to consider when it is and when it is not appropriate to repurpose artifacts from the past in order to make them more appealing to a modern audience.  I can still remember being appalled in 1991 when Natalie Cole released her “Unforgettable” single, in which she sings a “duet” with her father, Nat King Cole (who died in 1965).  Many saw this as a remarkable way that technology could allow Natalie to pay homage to the father who died while she was a teenager.  I, on the other hand, saw it as a cheap way to attract attention and album sales.

Archives certainly cannot afford to ignore either technology or the need to attract users.  But I do hope that this can be accomplished while still maintaining the authenticity of the records.  The two examples above are not unique, but I guess they have both stood out to me because the original versions are still entertaining and all the more remarkable taken in context — Lucille Ball in the atmosphere of the Red Scare and Nat King Cole in the civil rights struggle.  Removing them from their contexts only serves to minimize the importance of their impacts in their eras.  So in the end, I wonder whether archives can find ways to provide users with the latitude to repurpose and reimagine the record while still trying to maintain an anchor to the context in which the record was created.

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