Margaret Herrick, the Academy’s first librarian

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An Interview with Linda Harris Mehr, Library Director of the Margaret Herrick Library

Who was Margaret Herrick, said to be the Academy’s first librarian?

Margaret Herrick was the librarian at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (http://www.oscars.org) from 1936 to 1943, and served as the Academy’s executive director from 1945 to 1971. She not only laid the foundation for the Academy’s current world-class research library, she also negotiated the Academy’s first television broadcast, oversaw the transformation of the annual Oscar ceremony into a major televised event, and expanded the Academy’s educational and cultural activities.  The library was named in her honor at her retirement in 1971.

How did the Margaret Herrick Library come to be? What was the library’s original purpose and does it remain the same today, or has its role changed over the years?

The library (http://www.oscars.org/library/index.html) was established within a year of the 1927 founding of the Academy.  In the earliest years the organization was very involved with establishing standards for film sound and projection ratios.  Part of the library’s goal at that time was to collect material relating to such technology issues. The library also began collecting film periodicals and books and made them available to Academy members. Once the Academy Awards became an annual event, the library began compiling newspaper and magazine documentation on films being produced.  What we see in the infancy of the Academy is the nucleus of what the library has become today, the world’s preeminent facility for research and reference on multiple aspects of world-wide cinema. In the more than eighty years of its existence the library has grown dramatically in terms of its space, as well as the quantity and depth of its holdings, but all with the continuing goal to document and support the arts and sciences of motion pictures.

How is the library funded?  Does the library have a board?

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is an honorary membership organization whose ranks include more than 6,000 artists and professionals. The Academy receives its primary revenue from the television contract to air the Academy Awards, and provides the funding for the library through its nonprofit Academy Foundation which was established to oversee the organization’s educational and cultural activities.  An Oversight Committee, composed of Academy officers and members, meets annually to review the library’s activities and approve the next fiscal budget.

Describe the current library's collection and services:

The non-circulating collection, all relating to some aspect of the motion picture industry from its earliest days to the present, includes over 30,000 books and pamphlets, 2400 periodical titles, 80,000 screenplays; hundreds of thousands of production, biography and subject clipping files; 38,000 posters, 10 million photographs and nearly 1500 special collections. Among the special collections are archival script holdings, production and costume design drawings, sound recordings, and music scores.  Special collections and photographs total over 25,000 linear feet of material.
 
There are currently 72 library staff (65 full-time, 7 part-time). There are four main divisions in which staff work: general reference which includes those who work with books, periodicals, scripts and clipping files; special collections; the graphic arts department; and the photograph archive.

The library is open to the public, free of charge, Monday/Thursday/Friday 10am-6pm, Tuesday 10 am-8pm (PT).  Telephone reference is offered Monday/Tuesday/Thursday/Friday 9am-3pm (PT) (310-247-3020) and e-mail reference is also available through our website at http://catalog.oscars.org/refform.htm.

The National Film Information Service is a fee-based research service that can be contacted at http://www.oscars.org/library/ask/nfis.html

The library makes information and finding aids available through a variety of databases. Currently available online through www.oscars.org are the following:

  • Margaret Herrick Library Voyager catalog, containing some 65,000 records for books, periodicals, scripts and posters, as well as collection level records for special collections
  • Academy Awards Database containing information about Academy Award nominations and winners 
  • Academy Awards Acceptance Speech Database
  • Motion Picture Scripts Database listing six Los Angeles libraries’ script holdings 

Databases currently available at the library (hopefully on the website in the future) are:

  • Digital Image Gallery (DIG) containing metadata and digital images of over 50,000 photographic and other materials from the library’s collection
  • Special collections and photograph inventory databases containing detailed descriptions of archival holdings
  • A variety of other resources such as the Graphic Arts Database, and an in-house index to film periodicals 

For those interested in what celebrities wear at the Academy Awards, we even have a special Red Carpet Fashion Database complete with images and information about the apparel.

Researchers may acquire limited photocopies of items in the collection.  They may also purchase reproductions of photographs and posters through the photograph archive. 

Describe a typical day in the life of your library staff?

There really is no such thing since individuals on the library staff perform multiple tasks in multiple areas.  Among those responsibilities are:

  • Reading and marking various publications for articles to be clipped and placed in appropriate files
  • Providing reference assistance in person at the reference desk, via telephone reference or by answering e-mail queries
  • Reviewing and adding headings for our subject files
  • Indexing articles in film periodicals maintained in hard copy
  • Cataloging production and costume design drawings
  • Working with exhibition curators at the Academy and outside museums wishing to use graphic arts materials from the library’s collections
  • Acquiring and cataloging books and pamphlets
  • Providing assistance to researchers wishing to use special collections or photograph archive holdings
  • Conducting tours for film and library students
  • Developing and installing temporary library displays
  • Arranging and describing material in manuscript collections
  • Sorting, identifying and cataloging individual photographs and photograph collections
  • Taking patron photograph reproduction orders
  • Cataloging scanned digital images for DIG 
  • Working with the Systems Librarian to develop new digital resources
  • Interviewing subjects for our oral history program
  • Dealing with donors of manuscript, photographic and graphic arts materials
  • Providing reference assistance to other Academy departments
  • Working on subject authority standardization for names, film titles and subjects
  • Providing conservation work on multiple library items

To use the library, what do people need to be aware of?

The library is open, free of charge, to all those with a serious interest in some aspect of the film industry.  No appointment is necessary to use the regular research collection, which includes books, periodicals, scripts, clipping files, and photographs. Appointments are required to use special collections (manuscripts, recordings, graphic arts) and photograph archive collections (studio archives, filmmaker collections).  Information about using the library is posted on the Academy website at http://www.oscars.org/library/using/hours-directions.html.

What are some of the more common examples of why people use the library?

The library is used by a wide range of researchers, especially students, scholars, writers and filmmakers working on papers, books, dissertations, biographies, documentaries and other projects relating to some aspect of motion pictures as an art form and industry.  There are also many casual users seeking information on a particular film, individual or topic.

Some interesting research topics that staff members have assisted on recently include:

  • Hollywood and philanthropy 
  • Trial scenes in film melodrama 
  • Russian-American relations in the movies 
  • Neurology and epilepsy in 1940s films 
  • The history of sound in the Hollywood studio system 
  • Aaron Copland in Hollywood 
  • The representation of the CIA in James Bond films 
  • Youth spectators in the silent film era 
  • Ben Hecht and screenwriting in classical Hollywood 
  • The collaboration between directors and cinematographers 
  • Irish- and Italian-Americans in Hollywood gangster films 
  • Interior design in film 
  • The ancient world in silent cinema 
  • The history of the Writers Guild 
  • The role of agents in film pre-production
  • The influence of entertainment figures in presidential politics 
  • Monterey-style furniture in 1930s films 
  • The reception of Shirley temple movies 
  • Moby Dick as a novel and a film 
  • The depiction of India in British cinema
  • Fred Astaire and jazz
  • The history of the sequel in Hollywood film

Share a bit about some of the special collections that the library houses:

Some of the unique collections include the personal papers (which may contain correspondence, scripts, photographs, recordings, music scores, drawings) of major industry figures:

  • Directors Fred Zinnemann, John Huston, Alfred Hitchcock, George Stevens, William Wyler, Hal Ashby, George Roy Hill, and Sam Peckinpah 
  • Producers Mack Sennett, William Selig and Hal Wallis 
  • Actors Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Buster Keaton, Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Gregory Peck and Eva Marie Saint 
  • Cinematographer James Wong Howe 
  • Composers Alex North and Jerry Goldsmith 
  • Production designers Henry Bumstead, George Jenkins and Robert F. Boyle 
  • Costume designers Edith Head, Dorothy Jeakins and Leah Rhodes 
  • Gossip columnists Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons 

The Production Code Administration files (1930-1967) of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) are heavily used by scholars studying the history of censorship and self-regulation in the film industry. Also of note are major studio archival holdings: MGM and Paramount (scripts and photographs), RKO and United Artists (photographs). Other special photograph collections are those from Mary Pickford, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Woody Allen. The history of motion picture exhibition is documented in the B’hend and Kaufmann collection, which includes photographs, postcards, blueprints and drawings of theaters from the 1900s to 1960s.  Poster holdings range from 1895 to the present, and include three large specialized collections: posters for films featuring black artists, posters for animated films, and posters designed by Polish artists for films from around the world. 

Some unique items found in these various collections include: Fred Zinnemann’s annotated shooting script for From Here to Eternity, John Huston’s storyboard sketches for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, storyboards from Hitchcock’s The Birds, Billy Wilder’s comments on working with Marilyn Monroe on Some Like It Hot, behind-the-scenes photos of Woody Allen directing his films, Edward Steichen portrait photos of major Hollywood figures, photographic documentation of 1940s Hollywood strikes, Akira Kurosawa drawings for Tora! Tora! Tora!
 
How does the library come to hold these special items?

Most special collections were donated by a filmmaker, the filmmaker’s family, or by studios and organizations.  Initiation of this process is most often from the donor, but the library has also made certain requests to individuals and organizations. 

People wishing to donate material to the library can contact our Acquisitions Archivist, Howard Prouty (hprouty@oscars.org), our Photograph Curator, Matt Severson (mseverson@oscars.org) or our Graphic Arts Librarian, Anne Coco (acoco@oscars.org).

Is the library involved at all with the Academy Awards, and if so how?

As it has for decades, the library continues to compile files on films, individuals and general subjects related to motion pictures, past and present, primarily from newspapers, magazines and studio documents. These files are used to help verify information about possible nominations to ensure qualifications are met and details are accurate.  In the preparation of the Academy Awards show, library staff members are often called upon for related research. Frequently the producers of the show wish to use photographs and posters from the library’s holdings, and the library now arranges for these images to be made available through our digital asset management system. 

Are you given any heads up about the nominees or the award’s focus each year, so you can do research?

No. The nomination process is by secret ballot.  We learn the nominations when they are announced to the public, but because the staff is extremely knowledgeable about current films and very aware of what has been written about them in a multitude of publications, they are well prepared to promptly provide the necessary research and assistance.

What is the library’s focus the rest of the year after the awards are over?

Throughout the year, and even during the awards period, the library focuses on assisting all the researchers using the library resources for their various projects.

What future plans for growth or new developments do you have for the library?

Sufficient space for our holdings is an ongoing issue for us. The Academy now has three buildings–Academy headquarters, the Fairbanks Center which houses the library, and the Pickford Center which is home to the Academy Film Archive and other departments.  We have limited room for growth at Fairbanks, but fortunately are in the process of developing sizeable storage vaults at the Pickford building, and we do continue to seek additions to our holdings to ensure our collection is up-to-date and comprehensive.  We are also constantly trying to increase awareness of our holdings via our website and to develop additional electronic tools to convey more detailed information about our collections.  We are actively digitizing our vast photograph collection and hope to eventually have images available online.  We have a conservation program in place to deal with all of our rare materials–posters, drawings, recordings, photographs–and are exploring ways to ensure the preservation of digital materials, our newest and, perhaps, most pressing challenge.  

List how readers could best contact you or the library, if they had additional questions.

Additional information about the library, its holdings, policies, and how to contact us can be found on the website at http://www.oscars.org/library/index.html.

Linda Harris Mehr
Director
Margaret Herrick Library
Fairbanks Center
Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

February 2011

PHOTOGRAPH CAPTIONS (as they appear)

1. Fairbanks Center for Motion Picture Study, home of the Margaret Herrick Library, Beverly Hills, California.

2. Publicity portrait of Mary Pickford, circa 1919, by Alfred Campbell.

3. A three-sheet poster for Charlie Chaplin’s THE TRAMP (1915).

4. Costume design drawing by Howard Greer for THE SPANISH DANCER (1923).  From the Edith Head papers.

5. Production design by William Cameron Menzies for ROSITA (1923).  From the Kay Kuter papers.

6. A large format French poster for CINÉMATOGRAPHE LUMIÈRE (1895), reputedly the first poster for a narrative film,“L’arroseur arrose”.  This particular poster was Louis Lumière’s personal copy that hung outside his Paris theater.

On the I Love Libraries homepage: A Polish poster, printed in 1967, for THE NIGHT OF THE IGUANA (1964).  From the Richard Koszarski Polish Poster Collection.