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Motion Pictures in the Library of Congress

This document has been largely excerpted from Footage 89: North American Film and Video Sources, New York: Prelinger Associates, 1989.

Jump to: Introduction | I. The Copyright Collection | II. American Film Institute Collections | III. Non-Copyright, Non-AFI Collections


The Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division of the Library of Congress (M/B/RS) oversees one of the largest collections of motion pictures in the world. Acquired primarily through copyright deposit, exchange, gift and purchase, the collection spans the entire history of the cinema. The Library has been actively collecting motion pictures since 1942, though thanks to the ingenuity of Thomas Edison and other early film producers, beginning in 1894 thousands of films were deposited at the Library as still photographs. There was no provision in the copyright law for motion pictures until 1912, so filmmakers printed their movies on paper rolls or strips and sent them to the Library of Congress, some as late as 1915. For more information about these films (known as the Paper Print Collection), see the MARVEL document "Early Motion Picture Collections Free of Copyright Restrictions." In 1912, the copyright law established motion pictures as a distinct form, but the Library chose not to house the inflammable nitrate film in use at the time and returned all works to the claimants, retaining only descriptive printed material relating to the films. This practice changed in 1942 when, recognizing the importance of motion pictures and the need to preserve them as a historical record, the Library began to request the return of selected works, and to fill the gap between 1912 and 1942, to pursue gift collections and donations; M/B/RS continues to do so to this day.

I. The Copyright Collection

Copyright deposits comprise the largest, most visible portion of M/B/RS holdings, and are the materials most often used by M/B/RS patrons. Selection of copyright deposits currently functions as the principal source of current acquisitions. Some 7,000 to 8,000 titles have been added annually in recent years. Although the quantity and range of acquired works has expanded since 1942, the concept of selectivity remains. This makes the copyright catalog (bound volumes for the years 1894-1979, since then an online database accessible in LC and via the internet at a catalog of possibilities rather than a match to M/B/RS holdings.

The Copyright Collection therefore represents less a specific, definable collection than an ongoing process of acquisition. It continues to exemplify the wide range of U.S. film and video production and to reflect the diversity of American thought and experience. Remember, too, that external forces -- especially the nature of the entertainment business and the technicalities of copyright regulation -- have shaped the nature of the existing collection. For the footage researcher, the most important result is the predominant occurrence in the Copyright Collection of complete motion pictures produced and distributed in the U.S. (i.e., almost no raw footage or outtakes and few non-U.S. productions).

A more specific description of the copyright deposits in M/B/RS would amount to a history of filmmaking in the U.S. These further observations, however, will benefit the footage researcher in search of actuality material.

  1. Generally, films protected by copyright may not be duplicated. They are, however available for viewing for research purposes and can provide useful information. M/B/RS catalogs provide almost no subject access to this material.
  2. The vast majority of LC's theatrical newsreels are copyright deposits. There is no subject access to news footage in LC catalogs. As with other copyright deposits, very few issues were selected in the first few years, but their numbers increased in time. "Movietone News" holdings include scattered issues from 1942-45, 1950 and 1954-63 (12 issues are held for 1942-43; nearly complete holdings exist for 1957-63). "News of the Day" holdings include newsreels from 1941-49, 1952-53, 1956-57 and a complete run 1957-68 (3 to 6 issues exist for 1942 and 1952; heavier holdings exist for mid-1940s). Scattered issues of "Paramount News" for 1942-45 and 1955-57 are held. For "Universal Newsreel," scattered issues are held for 1943-45; nearly complete runs for 1946-54, 1957-58 and 1960-67; none are held for 1955-56. (Coincident with the eventual holdings of "Universal Newsreel" in the National Archives, LC early on decided to collect heavily from one series and acquire samples from the rest. The choice of Universal now creates some confusion for inexperienced researchers as to the respective holdings and policies of the two archives.) Very scattered, mostly earlier issues of these newsreels occur throughout other collections in M/B/RS.
  3. One final note in connection with copyright: since 1912, copyright regulations have required deposit of written material for published motion pictures submitted for registration. These "copyright descriptions" can range from one sentence to a full dialogue and cutting continuity, may be consulted in the Motion Picture and Television Reading Room. Patrons are required to use a microfilm copy of the material if one exists, unless it is determined by M/B/RS reference staff that there is a legitimate need to see the original documents. A set of the microfilm is retained for public use in the Motion Picture and Television Reading Room.

II. American Film Institute Collections

With the founding of the American Film Institute (AFI) in 1967, there was finally a national organization that could focus attention on film preservation and actively seek motion picture materials in need of preservation. "Nitrate won't wait!" became their rallying cry. Rather than create new physical facilities for film preservation, AFI assumed the role of catalyst and facilitator -- soliciting material, working with collectors and seeking funds -- while depositing collected films (now also television programs) in existing archives, primarily the Library of Congress. For more information about AFI, see their site on the World Wide Web.

The AFI collections fill some of the gaps in the Library's other acquisitions, primarily for the years 1912-42, when no copyright deposits were retained, and in holdings of preprint materials. Thousands of titles have come to LC (as gifts) from AFI, the majority of them original nitrate negatives and masters from major studios (Columbia, RKO and Universal). A wide variety of other films have been collected from individuals, corporations and historical organizations, mirroring M/B/RS's non-AFI collections. Almost all were produced prior to 1951, the period in which 35mm motion pictures were produced on nitrate-based stock and therefore in need of preservation (see the MARVEL documents relating to motion picture preservation efforts at the Library of Congress for more information on this subject). What follows are highlights among the AFI Collections in M/B/RS, with emphasis on those for which M/B/RS has created organized access.

A. Black Films in the Library of Congress

The AFI has collected and deposited in LC several groups of films (from a variety of sources) documenting a particular corner in film history: the production of films with all-black casts, originally intended for black audiences. Because of a steady demand for such information, M/B/RS has created a complete list of this material that is accessible via the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division's LC-MARVEL site ( or the Motion Picture and Television Reading Room Home Page on the Web (http//:*****).

These entertainments and shorts (1918-55) range from drama to musical variety shows. Producing and performing credits include Oscar Micheaux, Nina Mae McKinney, Mantan Moreland, Spencer Williams and Louis Jordan. Availability for duplication varies on the case-by-case basis typical of all non-copyright collections. Researchers should note that these films are not unique to the Library of Congress as they once were, having been collected, preserved and made known to an increasingly interested public, many of these films are back in theatrical, home video and television distribution.

B. DeForest Films (AFI/Zouary Collection)

Researchers in search of early sound films of musical performances (many were made) almost inevitably face disappointment. Even when a collection of Vitaphone pictures, for example, can be located (as in LC) it usually lacks sound elements. Exceptions to this rule are the Lee DeForest films in the Zouary Collection.

DeForest was one of the most important and successful experimenters with sound on film. His productions from the mid- 1920s preserve a variety of spoken and musical performances -- from DeWolfe Hopper's "Casey at the Bat" and Calvin Coolidge to Eubie Blake and opera, although most of his performers could be characterized as vaudeville performers. His system did not become the industry standard, so current copies do not always have perfectly synchronized sound. There are no restrictions on duplication of these films.

C. Melies Films (AFI/Academy Collection)

One of the earliest and most inventive of all filmmakers, Georges Melies made films in France early in the century that continue to astound each new generation. They were imported to the U.S., distributed widely under new titles, imitated and even pirated. In recent years, scholars have made significant progress in sorting out the true identities of extant copies.

M/B/RS has a number of Melies films in the Paper Print Collection, and scattered titles among other collections. A significant body of these films was acquired from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. This group is particularly noteworthy because it was acquired in nitrate and preserved by LC in 35mm. Individual title cards are filed in the Film and Television Catalog, but the most convenient source of information on these holdings is the Reading Room subject file for Georges Melies.

III. Non-Copyright, Non-AFI Collections

A wide variety of other motion picture films and videotapes has been received by M/B/RS over the years, independent of copyright deposit and the American Film Institute. Collections range in size from one to many items. Most of them may be duplicated with permission from the rights holder.

Following are sample collections of interest. Non-copyright and non-AFI collections of television programs are described in the MARVEL document "Television in the Library of Congress" and descriptions of the major public domain collections of early silent films are described in the MARVEL document "Early Motion Picture Collections Free of Copyright Restrictions."

A. Captured Foreign Collections

At the end of World War II a substantial number of films were confiscated in Germany, Italy and Japan and eventually shipped to repositories in the U.S. The films were deposited in the National Archives and Record Administration and the Library of Congress. Although it isn't exactly clear how the materials were divided between the institutions, it can generally be assumed that -- as with other collections -- theatrical entertainment films are more likely to be found in LC, and actuality films are more likely to be available at the National Archives.

Public Laws 87-846 and 87-861 returned the film copyrights to their original owners (or successors) in 1963 and gave the Library screening privileges and permanent custody of the prints. The Library worked with film archives in Germany, Italy and Japan to return the original nitrate prints in exchange for 16mm viewing copies, although in some instances LC did the preservation work. The bottom-line consequence for footage researchers interested in purchasing copies from these collections is that M/B/RS will, in most cases, refer them to organizations in the country of origin to obtain material or (in limited cases) request permission to duplicate material in M/B/RS.

Almost all of these films are represented solely by 16mm prints (the major exception being the Italian Collection features); titles and soundtracks have not been translated. Title cards are filed alphabetically both in the Film and Television Catalog and separately in the German, Italian and Japanese Collection Catalogs. Newsreels are listed only by issue number, under each series title, in the Foreign Newsreels Catalog. Although there is no subject index, dedicated researchers may browse through data sheets containing brief descriptions of the shorts and newsreel issues. In addition there are finding aids in English to some of he German newsreels. Feature films are included in the Directors File.

German Collection. This collection contains approximately 1,000 silent and sound features (1919-45); over 1,000 newsreels, including an extensive run of "Die Deutsche Wochenschau" (Sept. 1939-March 1945); and numerous educational, entertainment, documentary and propaganda shorts. Despite the barriers of language and inadequate cataloging, the German films have remained in active use, particularly by scholars who have studied such divers topics as propaganda, musicals and the works of major directors (e.g., Fritz Lang) -- evidence of both the rich variety and profound influence of German cinema.

Italian Collection. This is the smallest of the captured collections, containing 40 features (1934-40); 275 Instituto Luce newsreels (1938-43); and 100 Luce shorts (1930-43). Small but mighty; the features (like the Italian spectacles in the Kleine Collection - see Early Motion Picture Collections Free of Copyright Restrictions) have attracted the interest of scholars who find prints of these films difficult to locate. The preservation history of the Italian Collection is the source of its major distinction among the captured collections. LC assumed the responsibility for copying the nitrate originals, so there are 35mm negatives and prints in M/B/RS for most of the feature titles. The original prints and the copyrights have, however, been returned to Italy.

Japanese Collection. As with the German and Italian collections, the Japanese Collection contains a wide range of 200 features and 700 educational, documentary and propaganda shorts from the 1930s and early 1940s; and the newsreels "Asahi News" (1935-39), "Yomiuri News" (1936-40), and "Nippon News" (1940-45).

There is an additional set of title cards for this collection, providing an alphabetical listing of English-translation titles. However, there is some evidence that the transliterated titles on which they are based are not always accurate.

Two very useful and unique reference aids are in the Reading Room subject files: an issue-by-issue list of headlines in both Japanese characters and English translation for "Asahi News;" and English language summaries of "Nippon News."

B. United Artists Collection.

In 1969 the United Artist Corporation presented LC with its earliest surviving preprint material for approximately 3,000 motion pictures from the pre- 1949 film library of Warner Bros. pictures. The collection contains 50 silent features (1913-30); 750 sound features (1927- 48); 1800 sound short subjects(1926-48); and 400 cartoons, among them "Looney Tunes" and "Merrie Melodies." The collection also includes nearly 200 sound features released by Monogram Pictures Corporation and a number of "Popeye" cartoons released by Fleischer Studios. There are no United Artists films in the United Artists Collection. The early synchronized sound Vitaphone shorts are lacking accompanying sound discs.

This is an enormous collection of nitrate negatives and masters, which are still undergoing transfer to acetate stock. Most of the safety film copies exist only in the preservation master stage, limiting accessibility for viewing and duplication. Some years ago, LC obtained 16mm prints (unfortunately, many are television prints, flat in picture quality and occasionally edited) for 70 well known Warner Bros. features (among the most popular of all American films), including "The Jazz Singer" (1927); "Little Caesar" (1930); and "Knute Rockne, All American" (1940). Additional prints have been added to the collection, ranging from "reject fine grain master positives" (copies made for preservation but deemed inadequate) suitable for reference use, to sparkling 35mm prints reserved for theatrical projection. United Artists also donated 16mm prints of most of the Warner Bros. and Monogram films to the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, Film and Photo Archive.

Titles and holdings are listed in the various M/B/RS catalogs. There are a number of published reference books on Warner Bros. films. Copyrights are still in effect for most of the films in this collection; a donor restriction also applies. United Artist has passed through various hands, but current ownership of this material resides with Turner Entertainment Co.

C. Embassy of South Vietnam Collection

The consequences of war have provided yet another interesting collection of motion pictures to M/B/RS. Shortly after the collapse of the South Vietnamese government in late April 1975, its embassy in Washington, D.C. was closed and emptied; some of its contents found a new home in LC. Among the hastily packed and transferred materials were 527 reels of 16mm film.

These films have been inventoried and partially cataloged. The inventory reveals a variety of documentaries, some in English and in multiple copies (presumably for distribution in the U.S.); and more than 400 reels of newsreels, probably all in Vietnamese. Production dates probably range from the late 1950s to the mid- 1960s. Subject matter ranges from general human interest to "hard" war propaganda.

Viewing access to this collection is limited to the films for which M/B/RS has reference prints or video viewing copies. The in-house inventory of all titles in alphabetical order provides access to this collection.

D. Gatewood W. Dunston Collection

The Dunston Collection is both illustrative of the many named collections in M/B/RS (small in size and comprised of theatrical features from the 1910s-20s) and atypical in its method of acquisition and thematic focus (i.e., it has a focus). Dunston was devoted to collecting material relating to the popular cowboy star William S. Hart. In 1957 he left his paper materials (scripts, scrapbooks, photographs and correspondence) to LC and the films to the Smithsonian Institution, which transferred them to LC in that same year. Of the approximately 40 titles (in nitrate), about half are 28mm; only a few of these "non-standard" reels have been converted to standard-gauge acetate and the rest remain unviewable. One particularly interesting item is a sound prologue Hart made for the 1939 release reissue of "Tumbleweeds" (1925).

Researchers should be aware that there are non-Hart films in the Dunston Collection and Hart films scattered among other collections. The point is that film archives are grateful to individual collectors (such as Dunston) for saving most of what survives of American films made in the silent period; but taking a collection-name approach to M/B/RS catalogs will not be very helpful for most research projects. Title cards are filed in the Film and Television Catalog.

E. Edison Laboratory Collection

This small collection should not be confused with the many Edison Company films in the Paper Print Collection (so many, in fact, that some researchers refer to it as an Edison collection) and in several other collections. The Edison Laboratory Collection is the result of a 1965 cooperative agreement with the National Park Service, in which LC reproduced on safety film (mostly 16mm) the motion pictures found at the Edison Laboratory in West Orange, N.J., shortly after its designation as a national historic site.

The project preserved some of the Edison Company's early releases, promotional films for various Edison industries, and some Kinetophone productions (Edison's film-and-sound experiments; LC lacks the sound elements). An elderly Thomas Edison is also featured in several sound newsreel outtakes from the late 1920s. Reference prints and negatives are available for most of the 75 reels in the collection. Obtaining permission to copy the newsreels can be a problem, because many are unidentified as to source.

Title cards have not been integrated into the Film and Television Catalog, but reference staff can lead the researcher to a nearby working file for cards listing holdings. (The researcher may also profit from browsing further in this drawer).

F. Harmon Foundation Collection

This small but interesting collection of early educational films is one of the few in M/B/RS to contain actuality footage from the late 1920s to the 1940s. The Harmon Foundation first produced films beginning in 1926 for use in church worship and later turned its attention to films on peoples of other lands for church mission study. Attracting the interest of educators, these films became the nucleus of a distribution library, to which the Harmon Foundation added new films in its other areas of interest, such as "Negro Art," but always focusing on youth, constructive achievement and world understanding.

Users of the Harmon Collection should be aware of a counterpart Harmon Collection at the National Archives and Records Administration. Legend has it (the files provide no explanation as to why or how) that Harmon's library was divided between LC and NARA: prints in LC and negatives in NARA. However, experience has shown that this is not always the case. There definitely are only prints at LC, but lists of titles have never been compared. Title cards are filed in the Film and Television Catalog; the Dictionary Catalog also has individual subject entries and a full set of title cards filed under Harmon Foundation.

G. Eastman Teaching Films Collection

Similar to the Harmon Collection, this collection is comprised of classroom films from the late 1920s and 1930s. LC has only an incomplete set of prints, many in poor condition; it is hoped that negatives and other prints exist somewhere. M/B/RS also has a complete set of study guides (unindexed), which demonstrate the wide variety of topics filmed. Cards are filed by title in the Film and Television Catalog, and subject and collection name in the Dictionary Catalog.

H. Margaret Mead Collection

A sizable collection of 16mm films shot by Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson as part of their anthropological field work has been in the possession of M/B/RS since the mid-eighties. Most of the footage is unedited, positive camera originals in small rolls or assembled on larger reels of varying lengths. There are some negatives and very few reference prints. During the 1940s and 1950s many of the originals were screened and even edited for teaching, lecture and study purposes. Using Mead's field notes and photographs (held by LC's Manuscript and Prints and Photographs divisions respectively), the processing staff must sort through many tiny pieces to make the puzzle whole.

To date, two groups of the Mead Collection have been inventoried and cataloged. These are films made during the 1938 expedition among he Iatmul people of New Guinea, as well as footage shot in Bali (1936-39). The M/B/RS Processing Section plans to begin cataloging the films of two other Mead expeditions by spring 1996: a 1953-54 Admiralty Islands expedition and a 1963-66 New Guinea Admiralty Islands expedition.

Additionally, within the Mead Collection is footage associated with African-American writer and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston. Originally, only eight 16mm rolls of footage taken in Florida between 1927 and 1929 were identified as Hurston material. In 1995, M/B/RS staff verified that seven 16mm rolls taken in South Carolina in April and May 1940 are also Hurston films. Though Hurston's exact role in the production of these films is not known, the footage documents an African-American church in Beaufort, S.C. which Hurston wrote about extensively. There are reference prints available for viewing for all of the Hurston films in the Mead Collection, and video copies of the original eight rolls.

Cards in the Film and Television Catalog (and separate inventories) log originals, duplicate negatives and reference prints. Permission to duplicate films in this collection must be obtained from Margaret Mead's heirs.

I. Public Archives of Canada/Dawson City Collection

This collection of early theatrical films, known more familiarly as the Dawson Collection, is most notable for its source: a Yukon swimming pool. During the summer of 1978, amid restoration of Dawson City (a gold rush era boom town in the Yukon Territory) workmen unearthed a cache of 35mm nitrate film. At the end of the distribution chain, some 500 reels had accumulated there, and in 1929 were dumped as fill in a swimming pool that had come to the end of its usefulness. The region's deep and abiding cold (still today the only known retardant of nitrate deterioration) contributed to a high survival rate of the buried treasure, although water damage took its toll, especially from the top layer. Quick, improvised action on the part of the Public Archives of Canada (now National Archives of Canada, Moving Image and Sound Archives), with the cooperation of the Library of Congress and the American Film Institute, was necessary in order to salvage the survivors. See Sam Kula's "There's Film in Them Thar Hills!" (American Film, July/August 1979) for an action- packed account of the discovery and rescue. LC has the U.S. productions, some 190 reels, and all have been preserved and cataloged.

Although a number of important, and rare, early films (including "Polly of the Circus" [1917], with Mae Marsh and "Bliss" [1917], with Harold Lloyd) were unearthed in Dawson City, many survive only as incomplete copies. There are features, shorts, several serials and some news films. Title cards are filed in the Film and Television Catalog, and copies of these cards have been collected for a subject file in the Reading Room.

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  November 30, 2012
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