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:
And just look at that intimidating sign. Big leagues stuff, folks!
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:
- Purses/Briefcases/Backpacks/Fanny packs
- Folders/Notebooks with pockets
- 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!
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:
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?
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.)