Interview with Linda Harris Mehr

linda harris mehr

By Cindy Hepfer , State University of New York at Buffalo and
Pamela Bluh , Marshall Law Library at the University of Maryland

Cindy Hepfer, Chair of the 2008 ALCTS President’s Program, and Pamela Bluh (2007/2008 ALCTS President) recently submitted interview questions to Linda Harris Mehr, who will be the featured speaker at the 2008 ALCTS President’s Program on Monday, June 30, at 10:30 am in Anaheim during the 2008 ALA Annual Conference. The program is entitled: “From Here to Eternity: the Challenges of Managing Oscar’s Very Special Collections,” and Harris Mehr is the director of the Margaret Herrick Library at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Harris Mehr held us spell-bound on the phone discussing her library’s collections, and the challenges her staff members face in working with this iconic collection. While her collection is iconic, we nevertheless believe that many of the challenges her library faces are those to which we can all relate. We hope that this brief interview with Harris Mehr will whet your appetite and that as many of you as possible will attend the program.

We also encourage anyone who is interested to look at the Margaret Herrick Library’s website. We think that you will find the information and images that you find there as intriguing as we do!

ANO: Please tell us about some of the highlights of the collections of the Margaret Herrick Library at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.

LHM: To name just a few, the Margaret Herrick Library is home to:

  • The personal papers of:
    • Directors: Alfred Hitchcock, John Huston, Fred Zinnemann, and George Stevens
    • Actors: Mary Pickford, Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Gregory Peck, Mae West, and W.C. Fields
    • Costume designers: Edith Head, Marjorie Best, and Dorothy Jeakins
    • Production designers: Robert Boyle, George Jenkins, and Henry Bumstead
    • Writers: Ring Lardner, Jr. and Charles Brackett
    • Producers: Mack Sennett and Hal Wallis
    • Composers: Jerry Goldsmith and Alex North
    • Cinematographers: James Wong Howe
    • Gossip columnists: Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons.
    exterior, margaret herrick library, fairbanks center for motion picture study.
  • Studio archival collections: MGM screenplays and photographs; Paramount Pictures screenplays, pressbooks and photographs; RKO photographs; United Artists photographs.
  • Organization records: Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) Production Code files (censorship records 1930–1967); American Society of Cinematographers records; Screen Composers Association records.
  • 10 million photographs: portraits, publicity, scene stills, behind-the scenes, Hollywood social life, Academy Awards
  • 35,000 posters documenting films from 1895 on—U.S. and world-wide—special collections on black artists in film (1300+), posters for animation films (1200+), Polish posters of extraordinary graphic design (1700+).

ANO: How do you envision the Margaret Herrick Library growing and progressing in the future?

LHM: In a nutshell, we will continue to collect material to document past history as well as current activities of the industry, explore new technologies to provide increased access to our holdings, and seek additional space to handle growing collections.

ANO: Tell us about your background and how you came to be the director of the Margaret Herrick Library.

LHM: I have a Ph.D. in History with an emphasis on American social and cultural history. In the process of completing my dissertation (which in part dealt with images of women in film), I became very familiar with the Los Angeles area library holdings of motion picture-related collections. I was then hired by the Film and Television Study Center (a local consortium of universities and organizations with film and television materials) to write a grant proposal (awarded) and then do the bibliographic work required by the grant to create a union list of motion picture, television and radio holdings in institutions in the eleven western states. The results were then published (1978). I went on to provide separate bibliographic projects for UCLA and the Academy of Motion Pictures, taught film and history courses at the University of Southern California and the University of California San Diego, was hired as Archivist for the Urban Archives at California State University Northridge, and then in 1982 was offered the position of director of the Margaret Herrick Library where I have been ever since.

perils of pauline 5th episode poster. photoplay magazine cover with constance bennett, 1931.

ANO: What do you find most challenging and most rewarding about your job?

LHM: Most challenging is to find adequate space for the continuously growing collection, as well as to reach the appropriate balance between the need to preserve the multitude of rare archival materials of varying types--manuscripts, photographs, posters, books, periodicals, clipping files, drawings, music scores, and sound recordings—and the need to make such materials accessible to researchers. We are blessed with an abundance of extraordinary items documenting all aspects of filmmaking. We are also fortunate to have an amazingly talented, knowledgeable staff who are highly skilled at performing the needed cataloging and conservation work and who do their utmost to assist researchers. The most rewarding part for me is knowing that we are playing a major role in maintaining the memory of an industry that has provided the most significant form of popular culture for more than a century.

ANO: What kinds of skills and background do you look for when you hire staff for the Margaret Herrick Library?

LHM: Knowledge of film history is highly desired, or at the least an awareness that such must be acquired while working here to perform at the highest level. It goes without saying that excellent cataloging and archival skills are essential, and our top professional staff have MLS degrees and/or advanced degrees in film studies. We seek people with fine organizational abilities, ability to pay careful attention to details, knowledge of current library practices and new technologies, a willingness to work well with others and a desire to assist researchers.

ANO: Please give us a preview of coming attractions, i.e. the topics you might address in your presentation, “From Here to Eternity: the Challenges of Managing Oscar's Very Special Collections” at the ALCTS President's Program on June 30.

buster keaton in a scene from the love nest (1923). mary pickford portrait, circa 1919

LHM: I plan to discuss the types of materials we have acquired in the past, along with what we are seeking now. I will discuss the manner in which we organize and catalog our holdings, the types of new technologies we employ to increase access, the preservation challenges we encounter and the conservation methods we have enacted for dealing with various types of materials, as well as the ongoing space issues we face in order to increase and maintain our holdings. There will be multiple images from our collections, as well as visual documentation on preservation and housing measures.