Documenting cinematic history

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To those who take seriously the specialized craft of film preservation and archiving, which includes the technicians and cinema historians at PRO-TEK, it was a genuine delight to discover the first annual Film Librarians Conference.

Hosted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (in partnership with the Margaret Herrick Library for Film Studies), the event took place April 26-28, 2017 at the Pickford Center for Motion Picture Study in Hollywood.

“Vast, uncatalogued archives of private and studio collections are just now being recognized for their historical value. Film librarians are investing themselves in the very challenging work of preserving and organizing them for posterity.”

Several PRO-TEK staff immersed themselves in this meeting of film library minds, joining librarians and archivists from sixteen countries and more than eighty institutions. Being the first gathering of its kind, expectations ran from getting a feel for differences between U.S. and international library practices to discovering new methodologies. And, of course, we were all excited to meet new colleagues with a similar affinity for media asset preservation.

Preserving film-making history, start to finish

While the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) and the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF) hold conferences dedicated to restoration and preservation of motion pictures, the Film Librarians Conference stands apart as a much-needed forum to exchange knowledge and share archiving practices for documentation of related materials and media peripheral to the making of films.

Film-making artifacts include items like:

  • Continuity Polaroids from hair, makeup and special effects departments;
  • Key props and lighting designs from film and television productions;
  • Costumes and costume sketches;
  • Posters, press materials and other promotional items.

film-studio-lightingTogether they tell the complete story behind the production and showing of a given film; more importantly, they capture film-making from start to finish and document the progression of the art form as it changes year-to-year and evolves from one generation to another.

Notable Film Librarian Conference speakers

The conference’s keynote speaker was the hilarious and much-celebrated film director John Landis, whose work includes Animal House, The Blues Brothers and An American Werewolf in London.

As a passionate and long-time preservationist himself, Landis regaled the audience with many anecdotes about archiving the past and the importance of hanging onto stills, production design drawings, costume sketches, props, and so many other innumerable elements generated by the production of a movie.

Landis recalled, as a little boy, writing a fan letter to the great stop-motion animator Ray Harryhousen and receiving back an autographed photo showing him working on creatures from The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. He said the photo impressed him tremendously and had a direct effect on his decision to work in films professionally. Landis still has the photo, a rare artifact indeed.

Film preservationist David Pierce and his team offered a marvelous presentation about the Media History Digital Library which has been scanning high resolution copies of vintage film-related publications (such as comprehensive copies of the earliest issues of American Cinematographer, Hollywood Reporter, Photoplay, etc. plus long out of print technical journals and rare books) and posting them in their entirety online copyright free and without charge.

This phenomenally versatile, searchable and cross-referenced resource for authors and historians delivers value beyond measure and the website’s related Lantern and Arclight search tools make data comparison and research a snap. When coupled with Rutger Penne’s companion presentation on FIAF’s International Index to Film Periodicals, the idea that searching for articles from any number of film publications dating back to the beginning of film itself is astounding.

Rare peek inside major film studio archives

Permitting us a rare peek inside some studio archives, representatives from NBC/Universal, Disney and Pixar delivered in depth reviews of their respective archival collections and the manner in which they preserve and maintain these much-lauded resources.

Disney and Pixar’s animation materials collections were most impressive. Animators have ready and immersive access to original sketches, paintings and character sculptures employed in classic projects of the past 80 years. It’s gratifying to know that hands-on access to so many priceless developmental artifacts permits contemporary artists to reap the benefits of living, breathing libraries that are so meticulously maintained.


Among its many other noteworthy presentations, the Film Librarians Conference served up some illuminating sessions, including:

  • Documenting Early African American Cinema – a fascinating peek at how one archive is unearthing a long neglected but all too important part of history.
  • Training the Next Generation of Film Scholars – offered guidance and advice for up-and-coming archivists.
  • Preserving Privacy in Film Archives – focused on sensitive private materials in public collections.
  • Methodology and Mapping in the Study of Soviet Feature Film Studios through Paper-Based Archival Collections, documenting Soviet film history.

Some of them sound pretty technical, I know. But, oh how they turned what would otherwise have been mere lectures into thoughtful and consistently engaging audience interactions.

No film conference complete without screenings

The conference was rounded out by screenings, the most notable of which was the new documentary feature Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story by Daniel Raim. Not only does the film tell the delightfully charming tale of Hitchcock storyboard artist Harold Michelson and his wife, renowned film research librarian Lillian Michelson, but it also takes the viewer inside these two often-overlooked film production disciplines in a way that lends fresh appreciation for their respective crafts. The preview was preceded by a discussion with Lillian Michelson and the film’s director.

Of particular interest was Matt Severson’s presentation, A Study of the International Collections Archived by the Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library. It was surpassed only by the in-depth tour of the Herrick Library itself, its rare artifacts archives, movie poster restoration facility, motion picture library and stills archive. For sheer film history research and deep dive investigation into cinema culture, one would be hard pressed to identify a comparable institution.

The need for film librarianship

All conference presentations, screenings, panel discussions and facility explorations delivered numerous new perspectives, a very real wealth of fresh resources and, most importantly, the bringing together of dedicated professionals. It was a genuine delight to meet in person and talk at length with so many innovative and knowledgeable archival contemporaries in our field.

American film critic and historian Leonard Maltin delivered a surprisingly moving speech rife with sensitivity and personal insights. One was left with the distinct impression that some long overdue and serious attention is now being paid to the pivotal role that library sciences plays in the preservation of our cinema legacy and its ancillary artifacts.

Despite the most impressive technology available, there can be no finer or more enduring resource than the people who guard our legacy of film, which makes it especially delightful that motion picture librarianship has finally come of age with a conference all its own.

The archivists and library specialists of PRO-TEK continue to be very much a part of that vital culture. We hope the Film Librarians Conference will continue to offer a superior film preservation experience.

Michael Cahill

Michael Cahill

Michael Cahill is a Photo Archivist at LAC Group.
Michael Cahill

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