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Saving our Research Heritage – The Michelson Library: A Center for Cinematic Imagery – Hollywood, C

“The past is what you remember, imagine you remember, or pretend to remember.” Harold Pinter

The Michelson Library began as the research library for the Pickford-Fairbanks Studio, then United Artists, and finally Samuel Goldwyn. The major studio research libraries were responsible for collecting and archiving every manner of visual reference material required by their productions.

Lillian Michelson was the film industry’s premier researcher whose career spanned more than 60 years, providing cinematic research to hundreds of films and television series. Mentor to multiple generations of film archivists and researchers, at age 92 Lillian remains the gold standard that all other film researchers are measured by. Inspired by Lillian’s legacy and dedication to service, the Michelson Library will preserve and share her unique and historic film, television, and entertainment materials.

This library is the last of Hollywood’s original studio collections and it is now in serious peril of being lost for all time. All of these original studio libraries are now shuttered or in private control at distant locations, and none of them have migrated their materials into the online digital workspace.

The library’s unique inventory consists of 1,594 boxes that are stored on 45 pallets. Books: 5,000 apx. (Out of print, earliest editions date back to the early 1800s) Periodicals: 5,000 apx. (All historic and rare dating to the early 20th century), Photographs: 30,000 apx. (Architectural, set dec., prop, graphic subjects & motion picture set stills), Visual Clipping File Folders: 3,000 apx. (All indexed by subject), Memorabilia: 5,000 pieces apx. (Production notebooks, graphics, sketches, set drafting and production ephemera).

The Art Directors Guild Archives was granted guardianship of the library in 2013, but sadly when it was offered to the guild out of gratitude, the ADG Board declined to accept the library as a gift. The ADG Archives conducted a general inventory for purposes of decontamination, re-boxing, and appraisal in 2014. Through that process it was determined that none of the Library’s unique and historic materials could be found online. The original collection was curated and indexed by subject in a manner that was unique and typical of the studio’s practices and production methods. Over the last few years offers of a donation of the library have been made to AMPAS, USC, UCLA, AFI, Loyola Marymount, Chapman College, PHI Stoa, The Ransom Center, Zoetrope, and Lucas Film LTD and all have declined.

The Michelson library's history is one of many nomadic relocations, dismemberment, banishment to a salt mine in Pennsylvania, and then a divine resurrection and restoration... Its journey is not unlike the silent film classic "Way Down East" with our Lillian trapped on the ice flow headed down river towards the waterfall surrounded by boxes of books, photos, and clipping files.

The library’s survival has now taken a dark and critical turn as the current storage provider has requested a 500% increase in our storage costs. This is an impossible request to comply with, so once again Lillian’s boxes must be relocated to insure for the library’s continued preservation while our fund-raising, feasibility study, and planning may proceed.

The reimagined Michelson Library would not only preserve its core research materials, but it would become both a magnet and safe harbor for many other endangered research treasures currently in private holdings, all with a need for preservation as well. Crazy as it sounds, but there is no safe place for a designer’s most prized personal research materials to go to. Of course there is the Academy’s Herrick Library, which is our industry’s archival gold standard, but they only want content that is relevant to the produced work.

There is a shared resistance and indifference among all of the leading media archives for the preservation of the research materials that are essential for the creation of future productions – the eureka and ah-ha stuff that visual dreams are made from. Most sadly, no one wants to preserve anything related to TV or streaming productions, so off to the dumpsters and landfills most of these resources will go. A stand-alone library, one closely aligned and supported by online media production titans such as Amazon, Netflix, Goggle, or Apple to name a few, is the best of all possible solutions to insure for the preservation of the vast array of historic cinematic research that we depend upon.

The need to save the Michelson Library is now but we cannot save it without our creative communities support as a bridge to the future. If nothing is done and soon the Michelson Library’s visual and intellectual materials consisting of 200 years of out-of-print publications, photographs, and ephemera will be dispersed at best, at worst lost to all.

There is now hope! The Film Collaborative (TFC) has granted a fiscal sponsorship to The Michelson Library Fund. The TFC serves as a conduit for financial resources and provides support and oversight for independently produced projects. As a California 501(c)(3) non-profit organization you and anyone else who choses to donate will receive a Tax Receipt for your donation to The Michelson Library Fund.

So the pandemic be dammed! With your contribution of dimes or dollars, along with a few Medici’s, institutions, and titans of industry, miracles can and will happen, and the retooling of a classic Hollywood studio cinematic research library will begin in order to meet the demands of the digital age and our 24/7 global workspace.

For more information about Harold and Lillian Michelson and their research library please visit:


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