restricted access The Education of an Archivist: Keeping Movies at the Library of Congress
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The Education of an Archivist:
Keeping Movies at the Library of Congress

When my supervisor at the Library of Congress, Bill Sartain, asked if I would like to apply for a job in the Motion Picture Section, I had no idea it would be the beginning of a career and the start of an adventure. I had taken a job at the Library as a deck attendant out of desperation. Fatherhood was pending, and the economy was in one of those frequent slumps that seem to happen when you are job hunting. The Library was familiar territory—I’d been doing research there—so though the pay was minimal, it was a useful temporary job. The Motion Picture Section was a small step up, two hundred more dollars a year, but two hundred dollars went a lot further in those days. On October 20, 1958, I became the Clerk Typist (Section Secretary) in the Motion Picture Section. I remained with the collection until I retired in October 1993. During those years, the collection grew in size and complexity; the small group of custodial clerks became a larger, more professional staff; and as I gained experience, my duties became more complex. It was a fascinating, enjoyable, and profoundly rewarding experience.

We were pioneers in a brand-new profession, so it is my intent to record some of my memories of the experience.1 For those of us entrusted with the conservation of the Library’s unique collection of film and television, this was a time of learning, so this is a record of my training as an archivist. This account covers the first twenty years, the period starting in 1958 and ending in 1978, when the Motion Picture Section became the Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division.2

When I joined the Motion Picture Section in October 1958, it was part of the Stack and Reader Division. The Section Head, James H. Culver, supervised a staff of about seven.3 The Section’s responsibility was custodial; its charge was to store, service, and maintain the collection of about fifteen thousand motion pictures along with a sizable collection of documents related to motion pictures. Access to the collection was limited, and there was no reading room to serve the public. My job title was Secretary, but my primary duty was to handle paperwork in a new program to preserve motion pictures. The Library had received an appropriation of sixty thousand dollars from the U.S. Congress to complete the preservation of the Paper Print Collection and make safety film copies of nitrate film.4 This was the beginning of an annual congressional appropriation for film preservation that has continued each year since 1958.

Before 1958

At this point, some background information will be helpful. The motion picture collection dates from 1941, when Archibald MacLeish, recently appointed the Librarian of Congress, reversed a decision made in 1912 not to keep copies of films registered for copyright. MacLeish also began negotiations to cooperate with the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in collecting films. An agreement was negotiated with the producers of theatrical films for procedures to be followed when the Library began selecting films for the collection. The flammable nature of nitrate film is usually given as the reason for the 1912 decision not to keep films, but [End Page 151] skepticism about the suitability of film in the national library probably played a role. MacLeish was not a librarian. He was a poet–scholar with a comprehensive view of what a modern library should be. The film collection was only one of his innovations. Under his leadership, the Library’s sound recording studio and microfilming activities were also enhanced.5

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Howard Walls examining a paper print at his desk in the Motion Picture Division, February 2, 1945. Walls championed efforts to copy these rare paper prints. Library of Congress.

The Library began acquiring films in 1942. A grant from the Rockefeller Foundation implemented a contract with the MoMA to select copyrighted films for the collection.6 In contrast to the Museum’s emphasis on film as an art form, the Library...