Saturday, April 9, 2011

SAA tour of the Margaret Herrick Library

By Alison Leonard

In June the Society of American Archivists SJSU Student Chapter organized a tour for students at the Margaret Herrick Library in Beverly Hills. The Library is part of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the organization that is most famous for its academy awards, aka “the Oscars."

Altogether the Academy is housed in three buildings in Los Angeles. The first is the Fairbanks Center, where the Library is located. Douglas Fairbanks was a leading cinematic actor in the 1920s. He was a founding member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, as well as the first president of the Academy.

The Academy was founded in 1927 and the library was established a year later in 1928. The second building is the Pickford Center in Hollywood, and is named for Fairbanks’ one-time spouse, Mary Pickford. Pickford was also a leading actor in early cinema as well as a crusader of film preservation. This building is where the Academy’s Film Archive is housed.

Finally, the Academy Headquarters, in Beverly Hills, is where the executive offices and Samuel Goldwyn Theater are located.

The Academy’s website describes its institution as, “the world’s preeminent movie-related organization, with a membership of more than 6,000 of the most accomplished men and women working in cinema.” Regarding the library it states, “By 1941, the Academy library had gained acclaim for having one of the most complete motion picture-relate collections in the world.”

The library goes on to describe itself as “the World’s Preeminent Cinema Research Facility” and as we learned on the tour, it may just well be. Margaret Herrick, whom the library is named after, was the Academy’s first librarian and long-time executive director. Her long and important history with the Academy lasted from 1940 until 1971.

Cinema researchers from all over the world use the private, non-circulating library, which is available by appointment only. There are two reading rooms contained within the library, the first is the Cecil B. DeMille Reading Room named for American film director and producer, and the second is the Katharine Hepburn Special Collections Reading Room for manuscript and other archival material.

Our hosts were library staff members Barbara Hall, Research Archivist, and Ann Coco, the Graphic Arts Librarian. They did a super job preparing for our visit by having so many wonderful special collections on display for us to see.

The Academy subscribes to about 60-70 film publications, some of which are now only available online. This includes publications for people in the industry, theater owners and trade publications, as well as publications for the movie going audience, i.e. fan magazines. Barbara and Ann said that most researchers request materials from writers, directors and actors. Many researchers ask to see a specific film script or materials on a specific person. Film scripts are one of the many items the library collects. Interestingly enough, when the Academy requests scripts from writers, they often submit their favorite version, not the final version that appears on the screen. The typical library users are students, film scholars, historians, and film industry personnel. We learned that many researchers like to start their research by looking at scrapbooks, which can provide background on an individual’s family and other important people in their lives.

The Graphic Arts Collection within the library has an extensive poster collection and has ample information about the collections available online, including a collection that traces the history of African-Americans in cinema from 1921 to 1995. The digitization of the poster collection is a first priority of the library.

The library holds more than 1,000 special collections containing the ephemera of such luminaries as Katharine Hepburn, Alfred Hitchcock, George Stevens, John Huston, and Gregory Peck. The collections are so varied that I could not begin to list everything that they contain, but some examples of the library’s offerings include reviews, articles, press releases, lobby cards and personal correspondence. Special collections are further broken down into several categories including: the personal papers of directors and performers, studio records such as MGM or Paramount, association records, and collector’s records. The collector’s records are an assortment of ephemera from fans or writers who have a large collection that the Academy has acquired. The library also holds costume design sketches, and production design drawings.

One of the most requested collections is the Hays Production Code collection from the 1930s. According to NPR’s website, The Hays Office, a self-imposed arm of the industry, was created to enforce the code in response to growing concern in the government and among United States citizens regarding the moral content of films. This code was the precursor to the current rating systems and some say that the movie industry has not been the same since the institution of the so-called “Hays Code.” As a result scripts were reviewed for violence and morality and changes were suggested in order to quash public criticism of Hollywood. This was a code that was created in 1930 and affected all movies in production after 1934 until 1967 when it was abandoned. For more information on the Hays Code, see this full article.

For me, one of the most interesting parts of the tour was seeing the documents contained within the archives. It was exciting to see a telegram from Billy Wilder to Arthur Miller complaining about Marilyn Monroe’s bad behavior on the set of “Some Like it Hot.” One passage stated, “The fact is that the company pampered her, coddled her and acceded to all her whims. The only one who showed any lack of consideration was Marilyn, in her treatment of her co-stars and co-workers…Her chronic tardiness and unpreparedness cost us eighteen shooting days, hundreds of thousands of dollars, and countless heartaches.” This is but one example of the many important documents that chronicle the film industry’s contribution to American History in the 1900’s to today.

Alison Leonard has a background in fund raising with international organizations including Meridian International Center-a contractor for the U.S. Department of State and WNVC International Public Television. Alison holds an undergraduate degree in history from Virginia Tech, and a Masters in International Transactions from George Mason, which included study abroad at Oxford in England. She enjoys swimming laps, biking and hiking. She has visited over 90 national parks in the U.S. She has run into bears on the trail but thankfully no mountain lions.

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