Digital Resources for Film Studies from the Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library

Cinema Journal Teaching Dossier Teaching with Primary Sources Vol 4(3) Jenny Romero 
Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, Margaret Herrick Library

In 1927, thirty-six prominent members of the film community, including Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Cecil B. DeMille, founded the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, a professional membership organization for the industry.  Although perhaps best known for the presentation of its annual Awards of Merit, more commonly known as the Oscars, the organization also oversees a range of educational initiatives, including the operation of the world-renowned Margaret Herrick Library.  In existence since the earliest days of the Academy, the library is a nucleus for film research, and the institution’s librarians and archivists have long sought to develop reference tools to assist students, scholars, filmmakers and any other individuals interested in learning more about cinema as both an art form and an industry.

Over time, with the emergence of film studies as an academic discipline and the evolution of digital technologies, the library staff has worked to enhance and expand the resources available to researchers electronically.  Furthermore, as increasing importance is placed on primary source materials and the demand for offsite access to the library’s holdings grows concomitantly, the staff has endeavored to systematically select and digitize material from across the library’s vast collections in order to make the material accessible to a broader audience.  In this article, I explore the Margaret Herrick Library’s online databases, giving special emphasis to resources of particular interest to students, as well as discuss how scholars can play an active role in the development of these resources.

Library Catalog

The Library Catalog was the first electronic resource to be made available beyond the library walls.  A standard database of bibliographic records for the library’s holdings of books, pamphlets, periodicals, core collection scripts and archival collections, the catalog also includes detailed descriptions, and often images, for many of the library’s movie posters.  The implementation of a digital preservation program for posters in the late 1990s was the first large-scale undertaking of its kind by the library and was embarked upon for the express purpose of providing access to a collection otherwise usually inaccessible to researchers due to the size and fragile nature of the artifacts.  Thus, the library catalog not only gives researchers around the world the ability to browse the library’s holdings in key areas, it also serves as a research tool for those interested in studying the promotion of motion pictures through the art of the film poster.  Also, the possibility of searching by various criteria, including Library of Congress as well as FIAF and BFI-derived local subject headings, allows researchers to find and connect resources they might not have otherwise.


Figure 1: Library catalog record for Cabaret (1972) poster

Index to Film Periodicals

A project started in the 1930s, one of the earliest reference tools created by Academy librarians was a card file used to index articles in film periodicals.  The indexing was based on the library’s own periodical holdings and included fan publications that were rarely given consideration by more established reference guides.  Organized alphabetically by name, film title, and subject, the cards were made available to researchers in the library in much the same way as a card catalog for books. In 2004, the information on the cards was used to create the Index to Periodical Articles.  The database helps users quickly compile a list of citations related to their research topic and can be used in conjunction with other online resources, such as the Media History Digital Library, as well as microfilm and hard copy resources at other institutions.


Figure 2: One of the original cards used to create the Index to Periodical Articles

Production Art

Another electronic resource borne out of the librarians’ desire to provide access to rare and fragile material is the Production Art database.  This database is a guide to original artwork in the library’s collection, including costume design and production design drawings, animation art, storyboards, and paintings.  The production art holdings document more than eighty years of motion picture design and highlight the work of the artists who help create the visual world of a film. Serving as both a finding aid and a reference tool, the Production Art database includes images for a significant number of the library’s production art holdings.  The meticulous descriptions coupled with the ability to view images makes the database a useful tool for researchers interested in the more visual aspects of filmmaking.


Figure 3: Production Art database record for The Godfather Part II (1974)

Manuscript Inventories and Photograph Inventories

The Photograph Inventories and Manuscript Inventories databases, which include information about other archival holdings, have been available to researchers for nearly a decade, initially onsite only but later also via the Academy’s website.  The Photograph Inventories database is a finding aid to the library’s collection of more than 12 million images, representing a variety of formats, including black-and-white and color prints and negatives, color slides and transparencies, film frames, and glass slides and negatives.  Holdings include production photographs such as scene stills, off-camera shots and reference and research photographs, publicity portraits, family and personal photographs, as well as documentation of premieres, studios, theaters, and motion picture equipment.  Through the photograph collections students can not only learn more about the production of a particular film, but they can also trace the career of a favorite star or study the work of a particular photographer.

The Manuscript Inventories database provides extensive descriptions of the library’s special collections holdings.  These collections document the activities of companies and organizations as well as the careers of filmmakers and others who have made a significant contribution to the industry. Collected material includes production files, scripts, correspondence, clippings, contracts, manuscripts, notes, scrapbooks, sheet music, music scores, and recorded sound. Given the breadth and depth of the library’s holdings, the Manuscript Inventories database can be a particularly useful tool for introducing students to archival research.  Researchers can search across the more than 1,400 special collections using various criteria, including film title and keyword.  Even if students are not able to visit the library in person to view material, they can learn terms used to describe production documents — such as daily production report, shooting script and wardrobe plot book —  and see what types of archival material might exist for a given film or topic.

Margaret Herrick Library Digital Collections

The newest online resource available to researchers is Margaret Herrick Library Digital Collections, which contains digitized materials from across the vast collections of the Margaret Herrick Library, including photographs, correspondence, full issues of rare periodicals, sheet music, lobby cards and movie star ephemera.  The database also includes complete copies of more than 450 Academy publications, such as technical reports, member newsletters and ceremony programs, dating back to the founding of the organization.  Textual materials in Digital Collections are subjected to optical character recognition (OCR) before inclusion in the database, thus allowing for full-text searches.

Case Study for Collaboration: Digitizing the MPAA Production Code Administration Records

Margaret Herrick Library Digital Collections was designed to give researchers a user-friendly way to access a curated selection of the library’s digitized holdings offsite in hopes that it would facilitate scholarship and provide educators with a tool for introducing students to primary source materials.  When assessing material for digitization and inclusion in the database, the library staff takes into consideration a variety of concerns, including preservation risk, historical importance, rarity of the material and scholarly interest. Recently added to Digital Collections is a selection of files from the Motion Picture Association of America Production Code Administration records, one of the library’s most heavily used collections.  Undertaken with the assistance of a grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, the extensive cataloguing and digitization project was initially proposed due to researcher demand, as well as the central role the Production Code plays in American film history (and thus film studies curricula).  In the early stages of development, archivists recognized that an academic perspective would benefit the project so they reached out to four distinguished scholars who had worked extensively with the collection to seek their opinions about which files should be included.  Armed with their own intimate knowledge of the collection and the scholars’ input, the archivists set about narrowing down more than 19,000 files to a select 500. This cooperative effort between film scholars and library professionals serves as an example for future collaborations and demonstrates how such a relationship can foster the development of research and reference tools, which in turn help transform pedagogy and scholarship.


Figure 4: Home page for Margaret Herrick Library Digital Collections

The Future of the Library’s Online Resources

At present, the library is transitioning to an institution-wide Digital Asset Management System that will incorporate many of these databases into a more robust platform that will also include records for the holdings of the Academy Film Archive, which is home to the organization’s moving image collections.  The aim is to eventually make available a more comprehensive array of film research resources than has ever been available outside the Academy.  Please visit the Resources page for access to library databases and updates on the Academy’s next generation of research and reference tools.

Resource Links

Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences:

Margaret Herrick Library:

Media History Digital Library:

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