A Newbie’s Visit To The Margaret Herrick Library

A meager two weeks or so hence I embarked upon the most important day trip of my film history fanatic life–a trip to the Margaret Herrick library at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. I’d always hoped that one day I would make it there, but lo and behold it was sooner than expected! My second (longer) visit to Hollywood was too obviously a golden opportunity.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Herrick, it’s a prestigious reference library devoted entirely to film history. For anyone dabbling in serious cinematic research, going to the Herrick is practically a rite of passage. Its book and vintage magazine collection is fabulous and its Special Collections department is nothing short of priceless. I mean, Buster Keaton’s baby pictures are there. Yes.

Since I had a research project going (sit tight, details are coming!), I had decided that yes, I would take the leap and request an appointment to see some items in Special Collections. Admittedly, this was somewhat terrifying–scrolling through newspapers and vintage magazines on the Internet from the comfort of my Victorian-style couch from Goodwill is one thing, but actually sifting through delicate original documents under the watchful, professional eyes of the Herrick librarians was most definitely another. 

But hey, they had items that I wouldn’t be able to see anywhere else, those items are there to be researched, I’m definitely researching, and golly gee darn it why not go and see them?  So here, in exhaustive detail, is how the whole visit went down, and what to expect if you, too, enjoy film research and want to go to the Special Collections room yourself one day. One wide-eyed, complete newbie’s experience, coming right up!

Phase 1: Pre-Visit Planning

Anyone’s free to come and visit the Herrick just to see their books, magazines, and articles. But if you can’t just saunter into Special Collections and thumb through the original script for Gone With the Wind while holding a frappuccino–you need to be working on a specific project like a book or an article, and you need to set up an appointment. Let’s walk through the details, shall we?

  • You’ll want to go online and get familiar with the Special Collections holdings first, figuring out what material you’ll need to see. I spent a hearty chunk of time doing this, and narrowed it down to about 17 items (or folders).
  • Then you e-mail Special Collections a short description of your project and ask to set up an appointment. I asked for a specific day and for the appointment to be in the morning. The staff member who replied was very friendly and helpful, and she scheduled me for the time I wanted. (Set up your appointment far in advance, since spots at the research tables can fill up.)
  • Next, you head back online to the Special Collections database (which you’re familiar with now, right?) and create a list to submit for approval–easy-peasy, a box saying “Add to list” is next to each item. (The Herrick website says to make an appointment after submitting this list, but eh, mine was already set up.)
  • When the list is approved, you’re ready to go! I could hardly believe it, but I would get to handle some amazing original material–it seemed too good to be true!

Alright, I’ll stop being needlessly mysterious and tell you what my project is about. My subject is…Louise Fazenda, an early comedienne who was very popular back in the day, but who has, for whatever reason, been pretty much forgotten. She helped pave the way for Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett, and you know what? She deserves a bit of the spotlight back.

I will be writing some articles on her life and career and even, the Lord willing, collecting enough material for an honest-to-goodness book project, the prospect of which is almost too exciting for my mind to stand. Wish me luck! (And if you have any tips or info about Louise, do please let me know!)

So it was for Louise that I left my hostel on a June gloom kind of Hollywood morning and took the bus down La Brea and La Cienega to the Herrick. I left stupidly early, in case I stupidly took the wrong bus, but the journey went smoothly and there was time to kill before the doors unlocked at 10 a.m. The building was impressive indeed:

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And just look at that intimidating sign. Big leagues stuff, folks!

DSC01590

The lobby (the Bob Hope Lobby!) was all sleek, shiny, and white. There was a bust of Douglas Fairbanks. A staircase led up to the reading room. And I was actually inside this famous library–fantastic!

Phase 2: The Arrival

When you visit the Herrick, whether you’re there to browse books or look at original scripts you will receive a temporary library card.

  • You’ll be checking in with the security guards at the desk, and will need to have a valid ID with you. After filling out a short form and a register where you write what time you’re checking in, the guard clips your ID to the form and hands it back along with a token and key for the lockers.
  • Lockers are essential, because you can take practically nothing into the reading room. Here’s a list of Don’ts:
    • Food
    • Drinks
    • Purses/Briefcases/Backpacks/Fanny packs
    • Coats
    • Cellphones
    • Cameras
    • Scanners
    • Pens
    • Folders/Notebooks with pockets
    • Envelopes
    • Boxes
    • Magazines/newspapers
    • Umberellas
    • Almost everything
  • Essentially, all you can bring in are notebooks, paper, a laptop or tablet (and charger), and pencils (not pens!).
  • After saying goodbye to everything in your locker and hoping you won’t get too hungry while researching all day (or was that mostly me?), head to the reading room where the service desk will trade you your ID for a temporary library card.

All I had was a notebook, two pencils, and my tablet computer that has a little keyboard. (Everyone else seemed to have sleek fancy schmancy laptops, but whatevs.) It was time to visit Special Collections!

(Special Collections is the room through that archway.)

Phase 3: Actually Researching

Once you’ve made it into that room (congratulations!) and let the librarian know you have an appointment, here’s how the research session goes:

  • You fill out another form (surprise!) where you include a brief description of your project and list a reference or two (unprepared for this, I didn’t have my reference’s phone number but fortunately that was okay).
  • For each folder of material that comes from a specific collection (like the Mack Sennett papers) there’s a form you have to sign. This place is form central, is what we’re saying.
  • There’s several nice, spacious tables which you share with other researchers. About six other people were at work when I was there.
  • Handle each item verrrry carefully, laying each one face down in order as you read through them. Nothing must get mixed up or crinkled or torn (shudder).
  • Do you need to wear white gloves? I was confused about this myself and decided to observe everyone else. The answer seems to be “not really but yes”–it depends on what you’re handling. The whole day I saw someone use them only once, to hold something small I couldn’t quite make out. I personally brought a pair of supremely crappy white gloves (because I really can’t afford to pay around $30 for pieces of cloth shaped like hands) and used them one time to look through some beautiful, glossy portraits of Louise. The other items were paper documents, and it’s difficult to handle delicate papers with gloves on–you don’t want to risk tearing anything (some papers were tissue-thin!).
  • When you bring each folder back, let the librarian know if they can be refiled or if you need something copied. If the latter, you can bookmark those items and fill out a form stating which pages you need copied (this was far too much for my already overwhelmed brain to comprehend so I didn’t copy anything, just took notes).
  • Revel! You’re touching, reading, and exploring actual documents from an era that fascinates you. This is a banner day.

I was so hyped up and nervous that it was hard to focus at first, but soon I was on a studying roll. My folders included: some actual 1910s scripts (scenarios?) for several Keystone shorts, a couple that were not filmed; correspondence, including a letter written by Frances Marion; a surprisingly large file of magazine articles, newspaper articles, etc. compiled by a historian a few decades ago; and perhaps best of all, Louise’s 1919 contract with Mack Sennett, signed by Louise and Sennett himself. 

What a day! It took a flight from Minnesota to come here, so heck yes this was a multi-hour marathon research session. Not being sure how the day was going to go or if I could bring in a lunch, I had eaten the biggest breakfast my stomach could hold and a bag of trail mix in my locker got me by (I ate it down by the lockers). Happily, there were dixie cups in the bathroom downstairs for thirsty researchers.

Now, there was one mishap. About an hour away from ending the research marathon, it struck. The Tickle Cough.

Do any of you guys ever get that sudden tickle in your throat that makes you cough and cough, to the point where you’re almost gagging? I sure do. And it’s a dark curse in my life that’s certain to strike only, only at the absolute worst possible times. Oh, you think I’m kidding??! The list of places where the dreaded cough has struck includes: during a university lecture, several times in libraries, during a eulogy at a funeral, twice while taking tests, during that period of silence just before Mass begins, and at a wedding while the couple was saying their vows.

Now, I do have a way to control myself and keep quiet. I simply clench the muscles of my entire torso like a giant Charley horse while feeling my face turn fire engine red as I sternly force my body not to cough. And this is what I had to do…during my appointment in Special Collections while sifting through priceless original documents at the prestigious Margaret Herrick library. Yes, the curse always strikes AT THE WORST POSSIBLE TIMES!!1one

Fortunately I didn’t pass out and my face didn’t explode, and soon it was time to return the final folder to the desk. When you finish up at the Herrick, you return your card to the service desk, the staff member gives you back your ID and checks your notebook briefly to make sure you aren’t stuffing any Keystone scenarios in there, and then you’re free to get your stuff and write your “out time” in the register.

Phase 4: Recovery

Here’s what I looked like after researching it up all day:

DSC01594

Should’ve taken a “before” picture.

It had been an immensely rewarding experience, though, and I now had a notebook and a tablet stuffed with info I couldn’t have found anywhere else. All for you, Louise!

Now imagine you had gotten up early, been nervous all morning, rode buses to a place you’ve never been to before, spent all day cramming your brain with brand-new info, and then took the bus back to Hollywood through the throes of rush hour while being famished to the nth degree because it was suppertime and you should’ve bought two bags of trail mix, you nincompoop. Adventure!

Near death, I made up my mind to stop at the first fast food restaurant that was nearby, which was a Burger King, but unfortunately even being near death didn’t make Burger King sound good, so I looked down the street and what did I see?

SAVED!!!

And that was my Margaret Herrick library experience. Fellow newbie researchers, I hope you found my post helpful and will consider planning your own trip real soon! (And I recommend bringing trail mix and a few protein bars.)

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40 thoughts on “A Newbie’s Visit To The Margaret Herrick Library

  1. A most interesting and enjoyable article! Thanks for the details. They certainly make you jump through a lot of hoops don’t they? But I can see why, with the rarity and value of the material.

    I think Louise Fazenda is a GREAT choice for your research—such a talented comedienne, and yes, much too little known. I just recently watched her in Down on the Farm. She is great in that.

    • She really is! You know, I like Marie Prevost, but why didn’t they just have Louise be “the girl” right through the whole thing? C’mon, Sennett. 😉

      I’m glad you agree she’s a good research subject! She was so popular back then–there’s photos and publicity stories and such about her all over those old fan magazines. And yet no one really talks about her, ever. I became a Louise fan after watching Fatty’s Tintype Tangle (1915)–came for Roscoe, stayed for the goofy gal who could improvise right along with the best of ’em!

  2. Guess it’s time for me to start planning my first trip to the library! Don’t forget that my Louise Fazenda photo collection is at your disposal. It’s not large (40 or so photos), but there might be one or two that might be of interest.

    • That is AWESOME Tom (and generous of you!). I will definitely be contacting you about the photos at some point. Glad I could be a small part of your future research trip!

  3. Thanks for this useful guide. My experience was very much like yours, and the only thing that would have made it better would have been a fellow geek to share my awe. Nobody on the street (not that there were many pedestrians) was all that impressed with that fabulous building, but I felt like I was in Mecca. I was familiar with the Special Collections drill from NYPL’s Performing Arts, but since I don’t know my way around L.A. and had to find parking, I also was nervous about being late for my appointment (which nobody seemed to care about). It felt like the first day at a new school. Your project is very interesting, I look forward to seeing the fruits of your research! And I look forward to going back to the Herrick to do more research myself.

    • Me, too! 😀 This one folder was surprisingly massive, and will probably need a second, much more thorough, look. The whole experience was both intimidating and incredible–when I started this blog a couple years back, little did I know it would lead to researching in Special Collections at the Herrick! It still doesn’t seem real.

      Yes, it’s in a rather quiet residential sort of area, isn’t it? A bit random, but at least it was easy to figure out how to get there by bus (I am not yet brave enough to navigate the LA traffic).

  4. Lea, a very fine account and an encouragement to others. I’m based in Northern Virginia so my east coast version of your trip to Mecca centers on the Library of Congress. I found many treasures there but the real “gold” is at the Herrick Library.

  5. So excited to see your adventures, since I had my first trip only two years ago! I also arrived very early the first time, and there wasn’t much on the south side. But this LAST time I went north and found the Starbucks on La Cienega, where I got a chance to fuel up beforehand and make a pit stop before arriving bright-eyed and bushy-tailed just as they opened.

    Now I have to start scoping out the special collections at UCLA…

    Wishing you lots of luck on your Louise project! What a worthy subject! 🙂

  6. Hi Lea. This is a terrific primer on how to be a good researcher! I particularly appreciate your emphasis on pre-visit planning. I don’t know if it’s because I’m a nerd or because I’m an ex-public librarian, but I like all of their rules — I think it makes people behave better in general, while protecting the materials.

    Just for future reference: they will let you take breaks, and there’s a mini-mall across Olympic that has a 7-Eleven and some, uh, adequate fast-food places. Nothing as good as In-n-Out, of course. Also, there’s a cup dispenser in the ladies room if you need a drink of water.

      • That’s alright! 😀 I appreciate the other tips you wrote–one of my biggest question marks was what exactly to do about food if I was supposed to be there all day.

        Yes, all the rules absolutely made you respect the place and feel that you were doing Serious Research. I’m sure the paper trail was essential in case some documents got damaged or misplaced.

    • Hi Lisle, fellow Damfino! Glad to see you post, and I agree with your comments. I have never found their rules cumbersome, and was delighted to have access to such rare and wonderful materials.

      I’m not sure what’s at the mini-mall now, but I did run over there in the past to grab a bite when doing research. Unlike a lot of other areas in L.A., I never had any problem finding free multi-hour parking in the residential a block or 2 away from the Herrick. All in all, I’ve only had wonderful experiences there, and really appreciated the helpful and knowledgeable librarians, not to mention the security staff that welcomes you.

  7. Very cool place. So glad to hear you got to do some digging there. For a PBS History Detectives story on whether a viewer had the actual Grace Kelly car in Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief with Cary Grant – the sexy little Sunbeam Alpine sapphire blue convertible she drove in those winding hills above Monte Carlo – we found the telegram with the car’s VIN number in that library. But they wouldn’t let us shoot in the library at all. We had to shoot our host emerging from the library (so we did show the library’s exterior), getting into a cab – and showing us photocopies of research and delivering lines right there at the curb. More than one way to skin a cat! (It wasn’t the real car after all – but the investigative journey was worth it – Leonard Maltin appeared – and we found Hitch’s production manager who acquired the car for the production.

  8. ALWAYS wondered plus I was ALWAYS intimidated. And I don’t need to fly in from anywhere (of course, what with L.A. traffic I’m not so sure of this. Maybe those flight lessons will come in handy).
    Were there any research charges?
    Copying charges, I’m sure.
    I’m assuming the camera function on your tablet was verboten.
    Great account of your adventure, I know you enjoyed your In’N’Out (still family-owned for almost 70 years).
    Thanks – 🙂

    • Hi John! There were no charges to research anything, you just had to be working on a serious project. There were charges for copying, but I didn’t do any copying this time. It was intimidating at first all right, but everyone was very nice. It was easy to get comfortable there.

      Golly, I didn’t even think of the camera on my tablet until this very minute! Lol! I’m sure the librarians would definitely have noticed if I seemed to be taking pictures of anything, they were very watchful (and I wouldn’t have, anyways).

    • Dear John—don’t be intimidated, and please go and sate your curiosity! 😀 The photocopying charges are extremely nominal. They will even produce really nice copies of photographs for an additional cost. I received a beautiful portrait of Thelma Todd that way.

  9. My favorite place to do film history research! UCLA special collections is wonderful—I have used their viewing area to watch a rare Anna May Wong narrated television documentary. USC has Warner Bros. material, and their area is physically smaller than the Herrick and UCLA, so you definitely need advance notice to book your research slot. I could sit there all day and just read their comprehensive film book section, let alone getting lost in wonderful documents related to film, studios, etc. Living in Long Beach means I can get up to Hollywood relatively easily (just not at rush hours) Glad you had a productive visit, Lea, and I look forward to your Fazenda research and future posts.

    • Hi, Ay! Ooo, I’ll have to check out USC someday and see what’s available. (Louise was at Warner Bros for quite a bit.) You SoCal researchers are lucky to be in such close proximity with these essential places. 🙂

  10. It’s fascinating for me, as a trained archivist, to see “outside” perspectives. Yes, we do like for there to be a paper trail on everything.
    Also, regarding white gloves: current practice is to avoid them, because they actually cause more damage than finger oils. People will tend to handle things more clumsily (because they’re in gloves, duh) and also if the cotton gets torn on a staple, it can actually promote rust. The British Archives has abolished them altogether.
    Regarding the “tickle cough:” in my case, this was a symptom of GERD (aka acid reflux, or just plain indigestion). You may be able to treat it by taking a Zantac, Tums, or similar antacid before going into “quiet places” (if you can remember). If it becomes really constant (like everyday), it’s worth seeing a doctor.

    • More and more I’ve been hearing that white gloves aren’t necessary, and after handling old papers myself I totally agree–no way would I have felt comfortable trying to turn delicate pages with gloves on. They were handy for those portraits, which seemed too nice and glossy to get finger prints on them, but were unnecessary otherwise.

      Good to know that this type of cough might be a symptom of something else! It’s not frequent, fortunately (dry air-conditioned air might be the trigger). It just waits until I’m at a very important and very, very quiet event, that’s all. 😉

  11. What an awesome experience!!!! Did they only let you at what you requested to see or did you see everything?

    • They only let you see the materials you request, everything’s kept in a special room in back and when you come in for your appointment the folders of material are waiting for you in a box. (You view the folders one at a time.) Nice and organized!

  12. Just got my appointment arranged today. Now to narrow down the items I want to look at. I’ll probably be mostly going through photographs, including some of La Fazenda. Should be fun.

    • That’s fantastic! Let me know how it went, I’m curious how the whole “acquiring quality copies of photos from the library” thing goes.

  13. You’re hilarious!!! I am so glad you took the time to write about your experience. I love your down to earth writing. And I totally know about that tickle cough. It only happens to me when I am in front of a customer explaining the benefits of a credit card! Haha. Oh and I also laughed at your comment about the pieces of cloth shaped liked hands!

    • Hi Kitty! So glad you enjoyed it, I try to keep my writing entertaining and it’s always a thrill to know folks appreciate it! Oh, the horrors of the Tickle Cough. The struggle is real.

  14. I’ve been meaning to make an appointment there this summer to work on my project, but I don’t know what happened and now I have school starting up again soon… UGH. But this is incredibly helpful for someone like me (who gets into a severely anxious mess over visiting new and intimidating places), so thank you for taking the time to write this! I do have one quick question though (and I’m sorry if the answer is obvious), but what exactly did you mean by listing a reference? I want to make sure I have that taken care of. As for that tickle cough: I’m in the same boat 😦 Anyway, best of luck with your project!

    • Hi Nicole! I assumed it meant to list someone you know who has some experience in research. I listed the name of an historian, but I assume a teacher, experienced researcher, film writer, etc. would do too. I don’t think they’re picky about that part, since they didn’t mind that I didn’t know the reference’s phone number. It’s great to know that this article is helpful to you, good luck on your project! Hopefully you can get an appointment set up soon, if you live in/near LA you could even go back more than once! Envious. 😉

      • Oh okay! Thanks for clearing that up. It’s good to know that they don’t seem to be too picky about that 😀 Thank you again! I think that’s why it’s been taking me so long, since it’s nearby. But I also abhor navigating LA traffic, so I hope I can make the most of it!

  15. This is great, Lea! I’m so glad you wrote this (and then told me about it today!). I wish I could block out a day for a visit, but my only wide-open day is Wednesday–when they’re closed. And LACMA is closed (I’m going to see the Guillermo del Toro horror collection!!!). Those are my two big things for Thursday. I’m looking forward to your project on Louise! I’m hoping to visit her grave while I’m in town. I’m traveling from Illinois, so I feel your pain on the distance from home to these fabulous places.

    • Oooo! If you visit her grave, will you put a flower or two on it for me? Inglewood is the one place I have a hard time getting to when I’m in LA, since it’s a long ways from Hollywood Blvd and I use busses to get around (so far–next year I might have to brace myself and rent a car for the day).

      Have an awesome time at the del Toro exhibit, that sounds AMAZING!!

  16. Great post, Lea! I regularly do research at the Margaret Herrick Library – you do grow into it, once you know the drill. I’ve been there several times now (I’m doing research on Grace Kelly for my novel), and I’ve come to know a few of the very helpful staff members.

    Like you, I get excited about seeing artifacts – letters, scripts, documents – about old Hollywood. It really helps make the era (and the person one is researching) come alive.

    They do photocopies for you. It takes a while to get them – around 6 weeks, they mail it out to you – but it’s definitely worth it. Each copy is 50 cents (you specify each page you’d like them to copy on a request form).

    I used to take the bus, but that takes WAY too long – around an hour from Hollywood, and it stops everywhere. Much better to Uber, and it doesn’t cost much (probably $6-8).

    The mini-mall is okay – I usually buy food at the 7-11 and eat in the park beside the library. Or you can have lunch at the Japanese place (good sushi/noodles) or the Thai/Chinese place (I believe it’s called Chicken on Fire). During a big day of research you’ll want to maximize your time from 10-6pm, so you could also bring your own snacks/lunch.

    • Thanks for the tips, Katherine! I definitely need to return to the Herrick, and this time I’ll be secure in the knowledge that taking a break for lunch okay. 😀 (You seasoned researchers may laugh at me, but it’s not like the Herrick library recommends nearby sushi places!)

  17. Thank you for this great write up! I’m planning a trip this February (already got my appointment time and am going through the online catalog all this month), so this was very helpful. Great to know about the procedures for the lockers, which their site mentions but doesn’t explain the details. Also good to know that they require a reference which they don’t tell us anywhere on the site: I’ll plan one ahead of time instead of freaking out there in front of everyone that I’ve come unprepared!

    • So happy to be of service!! I looked for an article like this before my own Herrick visit. Pretty soon I realized that it hadn’t been written yet! Best of luck on your trip, it’s going to be so exciting and so worthwhile.

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