Saturday, November 09, 2013

Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Library & Archives

As a part-time lecturer at UCLA’s library school, I occasionally get to go on library field trips, usually arranged by the students themselves. Yesterday we toured the Margaret Herrick Library at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the organization that awards the Oscars every year.

For me, the Academy library has always been my dream job, surrounded by movie memorabilia and answering reference questions all day about film production. But, needless to say, people rarely leave the Herrick once they’re in, so I never even got a chance to apply. Still, touring the facility is better than nothing, especially since the building—a renovated 1920s water plant—is so beautiful.

Amazingly, the Academy’s library and archives are open to the public—scholars and fans alike—though few people get to go behind-the-scenes like we did. Our first stop was the open stacks reading room, where thousands of movie-related books and magazines are shelved for public use. From there we visited the department where clipping files are compiled and kept. Thousands of preservation-quality folders contain ephemera on every movie made or not made, including the fake 1970s film “Argo,” which, of course, served as the basis for last year’s Oscar-winning “best picture” of the same name.

We next toured the special collections, where we saw a fan’s scrapbook about Marlene Dietrich, Christmas cards from Princess Grace and her family, and Alfred Hitchcock’s notes and snapshots of the famous crop-duster scene in North by Northwest. The most exciting piece, by far, was the mane (i.e., wig) Bert Lahr wore as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz. The Academy also owns a pair of Dorothy’s ruby slippers, but they’re—understandably—kept under strict lock-and-key.

The Roddy McDowell Photograph Archive was next. Examples from the collection were laid-out on a table for our pleasure, including: a close-up of Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge!; the climactic scene from Reservoir Dogs; a young Elizabeth Taylor, when she was the most beautiful woman in Hollywood; and a photo album opened to a series of Polaroids taken of a buff young man posing in jeans, various cowboy hats, and (sometimes) a shirt. Upon closer inspection, I realized these were snaps of Brad Pitt trying on different outfits for his extremely memorable role in Thelma and Louise. (OMG!) Even more surprising: many, if not most, of the Academy’s 10+ million photos are available for purchase through the library’s photocopying service. Indeed, an enormous black-and-white picture of an evening-gowned woman was slowly being reproduced on a huge photocopy machine while we stood there watching.

Our last stop was the poster room, where some 80 thousand posters, costume designs and concept drawings are kept. We were treated to an artist’s rendering of Kirk Douglas in Lust for Life, a fantastical set design from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, and a drawing of actress-swimmer Esther Williams on water-skis, wearing a yellow one-piece bathing suit and black arm’s-length gloves, while clutching a purse (!). Ah, Hollywood.

At the end of the tour, I asked the librarians who's responsible for compiling the information given to the media during the Oscar awards season.

“We all are!” they exclaimed.

Apparently everyone is impacted by the nominations and awards process. Reference librarians gather data about the films and actors, while the photo archivists choose the best images to represent the nominees. Even the poster department is involved, pulling posters for the numerous screenings Academy members attend before submitting their votes.

“Do you all get together, at the end, to watch the Academy Awards show on TV?” one student asked.

“Well . . .” one of the librarians admitted, slyly glancing at her coworkers. “We all actually go to the ceremony.”

Damn! I knew this was the best job on earth!

The dramatic 1920s tower atop 
the Academy library


Suzanne Stauffer said...

Ooooh -- moaning and groaning in jealousy. Do they accept volunteers?

Cyn said...

I don't think they accept volunteers, other than library school interns. Can you imagine the line around the block if they *did* allow volunteers?!