It’s hard to be impressed these days. It’s not very cool to be impressed. I have to say, however, I am overwhelmed with the Margaret Herrick Library. It is part of the Academy Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. Located at 333 South La Cienega Blvd in Beverly Hills California, it is an old water treatment station that has been retrofitted into a modern library. I lived in Los Angeles for most of my adult life; but only entered the library recently as a visitor.
Named after the first librarian for the Academy and developed for academy members and serious life-long students of movie making; it contains archives surrounding the writing, directing, and production of American movies for the last 100 hundred years. It has more than 10 million photographs, 300,000 clipping files, 80,000 screenplays, 35,000 movie posters and 32,000 books. The library holdings also include more than 1,000 special collections representing a wide range of moviemaking personalities from Alfred Hitchcock to Jim Brooks.
It’s akin to going into the stacks of Oxford University or paying a visit to New York’s Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. It is a rarified kind of space that takes on sacred ambiance. You need to leave your life behind before entering the sanctuary as security very kindly and courteously makes you store cell phones, cameras, pens, backpacks, book bags into a very accommodating keyed locker.
You can bring in a laptop without a casing but no pens are allowed for fear of the original documents and sketches being damaged by leaky ink. There are plenty of pencils on the second floor where the majority of the research takes place. Most of the archives which include original screenplays are stored on the premises but some of the more obscure or specific collections of the library are housed off site.
I was researching two different projects for a film and book project. Everyone, including Academy Members, are asked to fill out a profile of the project so that when you seek out specific information the archivists are truly able to address your specific needs.
Over a course of a sunny month in Los Angeles, I made four visits to the Library. I was
able to view original correspondences between Carl Sandburg, the American Poet Laureate and George Stevens (his collection there is very complete); review original sketches from Saul Bass on a particular movie in which I was interested. I couldn’t scan, I couldn’t Xerox, but I could take notes and I could appreciate the power of an original document and the significance it played behind the scenes in cultivating the culture that we live in today.
I have to say I have never met more knowledgeable and helpful curators than at the Margaret Herrick. And for those of us who sometimes feel that Hollywood content has largely gone to hell in a hand basket, it is a pleasure to talk to people who have both knowledge and wisdom. So I would encourage anyone to take an intentional visit. Francis Truffaut said that he always tried to put a picnic or a park sequence in the middle of his movies so that the viewer who was at a Saturday matinee, could still enjoy a sunny picnic. Paying a visit to the well-catalogued and brilliantly presented library is akin to such a time.