By ALAN GEVINSON
"Motion Pictures, Broadcasting, Recorded Sound: An Illustrated Guide" is the latest colorful guide to the Library's multi-format collections published by the Library of Congress.
"The rich collections of the Library of Congress Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division (MBRS) document the past 100 years—the audiovisual century, the first century to be recorded by sound and moving images," writes David Francis, former MBRS chief, in the guide's introduction. "Thanks to recorded sound and moving images, our times will be better known and understood than preceding centuries."
The guide surveys the highlights of the vast collections of MBRS through a chronological narrative of audiovisual, technological, business, and artistic developments. It also chronicles the Library's developing role in acquiring, preserving, and disseminating these materials.
The story begins in the 1880s in the nation's capital, then on the verge of becoming "the scientific center of the world," in the words of C. Francis Jenkins, co-inventor with fellow Washingtonian, Thomas Armat, of the first motion picture projector. Scientists and businessmen in town sought to discover ways to transform sounds and images into reproducible material forms. Emile Berliner, creator of the microphone, flat recording discs and the gramophone, located his laboratory just one mile from the Library of Congress, now the home of the Berliner Collection of several hundred discs featuring music and spoken word recordings from the turn of the century.
Along with the Smithsonian Institution and the U.S. Patent Office, the Library of Congress provided critical institutional support to the city's community of inventors. In 1870, the Library had become the national repository of materials deposited for copyright protection. During the 1890s, the Library launched its unequaled motion picture collection when producers of early silent films deposited still images developed on paper prints in order to register their product. There was no provision in the copyright law at that time to protect the new medium of film. A half-century later, the Library collaborated in a project to restore these priceless stills to their original existence as moving picture films. Today, the MBRS Paper Print Collection constitutes the world's largest and most comprehensive source of American movies from the early silent era.
MBRS is the home of many collections of note from the silent film era. The Theodore Roosevelt Collection, for example, documents the activities of the first president whose life was extensively preserved on film. The division's holdings also include the collection of the most famous film star of her time, Mary Pickford, "America's Sweetheart." Pickford at one time vowed to destroy her early films, judging some of them "ridiculous," but, fortunately for future generations, her friend and fellow actress Lillian Gish convinced her that "they would be studied and appreciated in time." In later years, Pickford gratefully said of the Library's preservation efforts, "Without you, many of my films would have turned to dust."
Between the Wars
The decade of the 1920s saw a decisive transformation in popular commercial entertainment. The technology developed during World War I that allowed radio to become a major medium of mass communication also brought profound changes to both the recording and film industries. Motion pictures, radio and recordings were as integral to the "Jazz Age" as the literature of the period. During the Great Depression, these media continued to serve the mass audience in ways as diverse as those exemplified by Franklin Roosevelt's "Fireside chats" over the radio and the stunning Astaire-Rogers dance musicals of the 1930s.
Library collections contain a wealth of audiovisual materials that capture diverse expressions of the interwar period. With more than 100,000 radio and television soundtracks dating from 1935 to 1971, the Library's NBC Collection comprises the most comprehensive, publicly available broadcasting archives in the United States. The Mary Margaret McBride Collection features more than 1,100 hours of McBride's weekday talk shows, a pioneering mixture of interviews, advice, and product plugging that attracted an average of six million listeners daily. The Library's largest collection of major studio films, that of Columbia pictures, comprises more than 4,000 features and shorts. And the United Artists Collection of some 3,000 Warner Brothers films includes features, shorts and cartoons produced prior to 1949.
MBRS has also gathered a sizeable number of non-studio films from this period. The Library's collections are particularly strong in African-American films and in Yiddish-language films made in America. The division has collected an extensive amount of documentary film, including footage from ethnographic expeditions undertaken by Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson; films and raw footage from the radical Workers Film & Photo League; manuscript material, stills, and films from Pare Lorentz, the premier U.S. government filmmaker of the 1930s; and footage shot by noted novelist, folklorist, and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston.
World War II Era
When he assumed leadership of the Library of Congress in 1939, Archibald MacLeish committed the institution to a policy of national popular education. In 1940, he obtained a grant from the Carnegie Corporation to establish a recording laboratory to record and copy music, songs, stories and other aural traditions of national and international folk culture for distribution. With its state-of-the-art studio and phono-duplication facilities, the recording laboratory became the finest governmental recording facility in Washington.
In 1941, the Library began to issue a series of recordings by acclaimed poets reading their own works. Also in that year, the Library produced a set of pioneering educational and documentary radio programs using talented actors such as Walter Huston, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Raymond Massey and Agnes Moorehead. Writer Arthur Miller and composer Earl Robinson also contributed to the programs. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, they recorded hours of interviews in ten locations across the nation to capture for posterity the reactions of a varied group of ordinary Americans to their president's declaration of war.
During World War II, the Library established a motion picture repository that would, in the words of Librarian of Congress Luther H. Evans, "preserve those films which most faithfully record in one way or another the contemporary life and tastes and preferences of the American people." The Library also became a storehouse for captured World War II enemy audiovisual material. In 1966, due in part to the efforts of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, the Library began to receive what was to become a flood of Armed Forces Radio Service 16-inch transcription discs, many of which were produced during World War II to educate and entertain servicemen and women. This material complements the Library's Office of War Information Collection, which includes much American network radio broadcasting not known to have survived elsewhere.
The Postwar Period
The postwar period saw a phenomenal growth in the number of television sets in the nation—from one million in 1949 to 50 million a decade later. This new era of communications was both condemned and applauded. Paddy Chayevsky, noting television's promise in the early 1950s, deemed it "the marvelous medium of the ordinary." In 1961, President Kennedy's newly appointed director of the Federal Communications Commission, Newton Minow, castigated broadcasters for having squandered that potential, creating instead "a vast wasteland." Whether wonderland or wasteland, television's impact on American life and culture has been profound.
The Library's collections house NBC's entire kinescopic inventory—more than 18,000 items from 1948 to 1970, including thousands of hours of broadcast journalism covering the political and social life of the past half-century. The Library also holds the nation's largest collection of public television material, beginning with shows produced in the Washington, D.C., area in the 1950s and proceeding to the present day.
The impact of television radically transformed the radio industry. As radio shows and stars moved to television, much of the established network radio listening audience bought TV sets and followed their favorite shows to the new medium. The remaining radio audience, however, was augmented by younger listeners who now turned their car and transistor radios to their favorite disc jockey playing the latest hit songs. The Library holds the complete radio archives of the Mutual Broadcasting System's flagship station, WOR-AM, comprising approximately 15,000 discs and the station's paper archives. The rise of noncommercial radio beginning in the early 1970s is also well documented in the Library's holdings of the National Public Radio (NPR) Collection with more than 25,000 tapes of arts programs from 1971 through 1991.
Late 20th Century
The U.S. Congress in 1987 passed a resolution affirming that jazz "is hereby designated as a rare and valuable American treasure to which we should devote our attention, support, and resources to make certain it is preserved, understood, and promulgated." Although the Library's commitment to collecting and preserving jazz began long before this declaration of congressional appreciation, two of the most significant jazz collections held in MBRS were acquired in 1991. The Robert Altshuler Collection of 250,000 78 rpm records spans the years 1917 to approximately 1950. The Valburn-Ellington Collection acquired from jazz connoisseur Jerry Valburn includes every known commercially released 78 rpm recording made by Duke Ellington in its original format—with one exception—as well as 3,000 unpublished open-reel tapes.
In the last three decades of the 20th century, the Library has made a concerted effort to strengthen its international motion picture and video holdings. Recent acquisitions include important films and videos that represent significant creative and documentary efforts from Australia, Cuba, Egypt, Germany, Iceland, India, Israel, Italy, Lebanon, Norway, Pakistan, Poland, Senegal, the Soviet Union, and Sweden, among other countries.
The 21st Century and the Future
In May 2000, the Library opened the Bob Hope Gallery of American Entertainment to honor the comedian on his 98th birthday. As a spotlight that illuminates the great popular American entertainers of the past century, the gallery features highlights from such important division collections as the Gwen Verdon-Bob Fosse Collection, the Danny Kaye and Sylvia Fine Kaye Collection, and, of course, the Bob Hope Collection.
The preservation of our nation's radio and television heritage became national policy in 1976 when the American Television and Radio Archives Act was approved by Congress. Preservation of significant films is carried out under the terms of the National Film Preservation Act of 1988. In accordance with the act, the Librarian of Congress names 25 "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" films to the National Film Registry every year; and archival quality copies of the original copies of those films are added to the Library's collections to ensure their preservation. Most recently, in 2000, the National Recording Preservation Act was approved by Congress to launch an effort to preserve the nation's rich legacy of all kinds of sound recordings. The National Recording Preservation Board held its inaugural meeting at the Library on March 12 of this year (see Information Bulletin March-April 2002, p. 60).
At present, the Library of Congress is building the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center in Culpeper, Va., where a state-of-the-art archival environment will provide storage for the Library's audiovisual collections and house preservation and cataloging functions of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division.
The Library recognizes its enormous responsibility to maintain audiovisual materials in usable conditions for future generations. At the beginning of this new audiovisual century, the Library remains firmly committed to preserving for posterity the rich audiovisual heritage of the past.
The attractive illustrated guides to the Library's collections, featuring materials in various formats, have been made possible by support from the James Madison Council, a national, private-sector advisory council dedicated to helping the Library of Congress share its unique resources with the nation and the world. The series of volumes now includes guides to the collections of manuscripts; prints and photographs; rare books; maps; music, theater and dance; Hispanic and Portuguese, European, African and Middle Eastern, and Asian materials that can be found at the Library of Congress.
"Motion Pictures, Broadcasting, Recorded Sound: An Illustrated Guide"—an 88-page softcover book with 109 illustrations—is available for $18 from the Library of Congress Sales Shop, credit card orders (888) 682-3557; and from the U.S. Government Printing office (stock number 030-001-00162-8), telephone (866) 512-1800.
Alan Gevinson is a film historian.