So. It’s been a little quiet around here, yes. But I feel like I have a slightly good reason: at the end of this year, assuming all goes to plan, I’ll be precisely halfway through my PhD program in Cinema and Media Studies. The program has substituted much of my impulse(/motivation) for blogging, as the style and subject of my actual class assignments are very similar to what I’ve done here. So, it’s not quite the “nice creative break from the desk job” as it was when I first started.
But I also like it here, and since I’m, uh, still paying for the domain name, I guess I should to try to be here a little more often.
Anyway, I figured I’d get things moving again with a series of posts about doing archival research, which is something that has remained fun for me throughout work and school. While secondary sources are obviously important for background and interpretation, there’s also something particularly thrilling about digging into the archives themselves. They provide a direct connection to history, but also hold the promise of new discoveries.
I’m starting today with a library that I’ve gotten to know pretty well over the past year or so, and which I’m sure some of you have as well: the Margaret Herrick Library, aka the library and paper/photo archive of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, located in Beverly Hills, California.
What is the Academy Library?
First, I think it’s important to briefly distinguish between the different facets of the Academy. Yes, as a whole, they are probably best known as the group that hands out Oscars every year. But that is only one small facet of the work that goes on at AMPAS. The staff that works at, say, the library or film archive, are not the same people who actually vote for the awards (known as “Academy members”). Academy staff are the ones conducting important preservation and public access work at the library, film archive, and museum. That is to say, if you do pay a visit to the Herrick, I just want to make it clear that the people there weren’t responsible for your least favorite film winning Best Picture or your favorite star being left off the In Memoriam segment so please don’t yell at them. However, if you’ve read a great star biography, seen some incredible behind the scenes photos of MGM sets, or been shocked by a saucy letter from a studio head, it’s very possible that someone at the Herrick helped preserve that information and/or helped a researcher get it out into the world.
What does the Herrick have?
If you are looking for anything related to the studio era Hollywood, MHL is the place to go. Photos, newspaper and magazine clippings, correspondence, lobby cards, and so on and so on… there’s basically too much to even attempt to summarize. For starters, I would wager that the library has at least something on almost any studio-era person or film that you could think of, plus a bunch of stuff on people you’d never think of.
The best way to figure out what they have is to a) start looking and b) ask. While I highly recommend doing research in person at the Herrick at least once if you’re interested, they also have robust Digital Collections available online that are also worth checking out and full of potential discoveries. It can also give you a good sense of a few of the collections that are available, and might inspire further research. You can also try contacting the Reference desk, who can assist you with materials and even try to answer specific research questions for you.
Most of your searches will start in the library catalog or Academy Collections. I usually start in Keyword, but if you know exactly what you’re looking for, “Film Title” or “Related Name” will bring up everything tagged with a certain movie or person. Some of the categories also allow you to browse the full list, which can be a useful if overwhelming experience. If I find something interesting in the search results, I always try to keep track of the ID number as well, as that’s usually the easiest way to make sure you can get back to the exact thing you’ve found. Also, keep in mind that you won’t always get the full results to the database until you’re searching from one of the computers inside the library.
Again, there are a lot of digitized objects, but these searches will also sometimes result in an item that’s just noted as a file. If that’s the case, and you need to see it, it will mean taking a trip to Beverly Hills.
Visiting the Herrick
The library is housed in an impressive Spanish Colonial-style building that used to be the Beverly Hills waterworks, but seems to fit perfectly with the stature and era of the collection.
There’s a public parking lot below the tennis court right next door on La Cienega, or meters behind the park on Le Doux. The surrounding neighborhood is mostly permit parking, so just be cautious and read the signs.
Upon entering, check in at the desk (with photo ID), and place most of your things in one of the lockers using a token from the guard. You can pretty much only bring a laptop or pad and pencil, so everything else will stay behind in the locker. I try to leave most of my non-valuables in the car or at home, as well.
First, while the archive part of the Herrick tends to get most of the glory and special thanks, it also functions as a library proper, with a huge collection of film-related books. You can’t check them out, but you can view them on site without an appointment. It’s a great way to look at a lot of books at once, especially if you don’t have access to a university library and don’t want to spam your local library with ILL requests. I also feel like I fairly often see a “famous” historian/researcher/podcaster at work at these library desks when I go, so you’re always in good company.
The Herrick also has a large collection of “Core” biography and production files, which are individual files about certain people and films. These files can also be pulled same-day, so you don’t have to request them ahead of time. When you arrive, you’ll fill out a request form and the librarian will retrieve the folder for you (one at a time).
Special Collections include anything that came to the library as a donation or purchase from a specific person or organization. For instance, they have personal papers from Mary Pickford, George Cukor, or Fred Zinnemann; they have MGM set reference photos and costume design drawings; and they have a large poster collection from Edward Mapp. You might also find letters, memos, brochures, ticket stubs, scrapbooks–almost anything paper-based could be in there. Items from Special Collections do have to be pulled ahead of your visit, so make sure to schedule your visit and requests as early as possible.
For any visit, I highly recommend contacting the librarians as far in advance as possible with information about your research project. They always seem to know about a hidden item beyond the scope of my database searches, and they are always super helpful. Any time a “newly discovered, never-before-seen” is found within the archive… just remember that an archivist or librarian was there first.
MARGARET HERRICK LIBRARY
Fairbanks Center for Motion Picture Study
333 S. La Cienega Boulevard
Beverly Hills, California 90211
Monday, Thursday & Friday: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Tuesday: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Wednesday, Saturday & Sunday: Closed