By Jon Tollestrup
Quietly tucked below the busy hum of activity from the periodical floor of the Harold B. Lee Library is the relatively unknown L. Tom Perry Special Collections. Not many people ever make the descent to its home on the bottom floor, and those who have strolled by its oversized doors might be inclined to wonder, “What is so ”special” about that place?”
But don”t be fooled by this deceptive first impression. It is somewhat like the tip of the iceberg in not revealing the whole story of the incredible facility housed just behind it.
The somewhat clandestine location of special collections leaves it susceptible to rumors that it”s archives hold incredible artifacts like the sword of Laban, making it BYU”s own “Area 51″ of sorts.
However, despite its video cameras and heavy doors, special collections isn”t top secret and is open to anyone interested in reading anything from the diaries of Mormon pioneers to stories gathered by students about life at BYU.
“We”re unique in … that special collections and rare book libraries in other institutions are … places where graduate students, faculty members and seasoned scholars go,” said Russ Taylor, the reference librarian in special collections for the last seven years. “But here we encourage our undergraduates to use the research materials.”
Not being as regimented and exclusive as other institutions is part of the special collection”s definitive character and overall mission of being more accessible to the public. One example of the friendly and jovial nature of special collections is found right on Taylor”s office door where a sign proclaims: “Conan the Librarian.”
While there is nothing barbaric about this facility, this sign does suggest the strengths of its workers in creating learning opportunities to help others.
“Generally speaking, the people that gravitate toward librarian and archival work are the same kind of people you”d find going into medicine. They have a desire to help people,” said Taylor, who used to write speeches for the director of the FBI. “They”re people who love artifacts, but they also have a genuine interest in people.”
The approximately 60 employees, 14 who are curators of the 10 different archives, are the cogs and wheels that help bring special collections to life. Their backgrounds comprise a buffet of various interests, which bodes well in managing all of the different archives from Mormon Americana to the Renaissance. But everyone is united by the same goal of striving to preserve these artifacts and make them available for people to use and experience.
One archive that is well known for exemplifying the special collection”s mission to go the extra mile by being actively accessible to the BYU community and beyond is the motion picture archive.
In 1999, this archive, along with the rest of special collections, packed up its manuscripts and antique Oscar statuettes to move into the new section of the Harold B. Lee Library. The move into the new facility provided all of special collections with a lot more room to breathe. The motion picture archive”s curator, James D”Arc, quickly took advantage of the new surroundings by inaugurating the special collections motion picture archive film series in early 2000.
“There”s a mandate, if you will, in the archival world to continue to augment the collections you already have with whatever you can,” said D”Arc, whose office looks like a mini library of books related to motion pictures. “The fact that we had a film series made that more interesting and acute, and it allowed us to focus more on acquiring motion pictures. So it definitely stepped up the amount of collecting that we did of original film prints.”
Before the new facility was available, D”Arc estimated that the archive had 50 to 60 feature titles in the can, but since then that number has reached nearly 200. Also besides the feature films, the collection contains old newsreel footage of Utah and home movie footage. Among this footage are segments from Merian C. Cooper”s home footage of legendary “King Kong” star Fay Wray playing on the beach.
In addition to letting the public experience classic films in their original formats, the motion picture archive also lets patrons take home a piece of the film experience itself. In 1995, the archive began producing CDs of original soundtrack recordings housed in the film music archive. Currently, 16 titles are on the archive”s play list, and each one comes with a comprehensive booklet giving details behind the music.
“We produce and edit the scholarly booklets. We produce the CD itself and those are marketed worldwide,” said D”Arc, who regularly receives appreciative letters from music enthusiasts. “We”re the only institution in the world that has a designated film music archive and that produces a product like this. So that”s another form of scholarly outreach.”
Since putting down its roots nearly 30 years ago, the motion picture archive”s existence has grown like most of the other archives: out of necessity.
“We would accumulate motion picture film and videotapes that would come in with manuscript collections we would receive,” said D”Arc, who received a doctorate in film history from BYU. “Some of it was university generated, but it began to come in great numbers when we began to acquire the papers of motion picture producers, directors and actors.”
About 20 years prior to the piling up of these motion picture artifacts, the special collections as a department came together for much the same reason. A number of faculty expeditions to South America in search of Book of Mormon evidence ended up yielding a growing amalgamation of artifacts that weren”t adopted into any of the existing museums on campus. After continuous growth over the years, the special collections became official in 1957.
“Chad Flake was the first curator here; he was the father of this department,” said Taylor, who worked as Flake”s assistant from 1972 to 1975. “He really loved this department. It was his family for more than 40 years.”
When Flake died a few years ago, he capped off his munificent legacy by donating a substantial amount of money to the special collections with a special request.
“Chad, bless his heart, did not only dedicate his life to this library … but he was such a frugal fellow that he was able to save over $1 million, which he then turned around and gave back to the library as an endowment,” said Brad Westwood, the special collections department chair, “an endowment that allows us to take the interest and each year purchase what he asked us to purchase, which was 16th century rare books.”
After things were established, A. Dean Larson came along in 1961 and took the baton from Flake and took off, taking special collections with him. According to a brief biography, Larson traveled all over the world, and “even when the library”s holdings reached three million volumes, Dean could tell a book dealer if a particular title was in the library”s holdings.” This keen “book sense” resulted in him being principally responsible for the acquisition of over three million volumes for the library and special collections.
“When these guys started there was probably about 10,000 students at BYU,” Westwood said. “It”s not like we were Yale or Harvard, and yet these men were out thinking about the future and acquiring rare books. It was fairly progressive.”
The approximately 330,000 books and 10,000 manuscripts are housed in what is called the “stacks area,” which acts as a morgue for the minds of the past, sporadically summoned to life by an eager researcher. This portion of special collections is divided into books and manuscripts, which both occupy two separate rooms roughly the length of a football field.
Contained in them are long trains of shelves with books and manuscripts giving off a faint scent of antiquated leather and paper. Each room is laboratory white, and cooled to the environment of a crisp day in spring to help preserve treasures like letters from Lousia May Alcott and Charles Dickens.
The atmosphere in the stacks area is as serene as a graveyard, except for the low hum of an air-sampling machine, constantly sifting through the air for dangerous particulate matter that would threaten the archives” integrity.
“We always joke, when we have people visiting and taking tours of the stacks area, that the Ark of the Covenant is back on the last right,” Taylor said.
A large portion of the stacks area is dedicated to the collections of the motion picture archive. Walking up and down the aisles of the manuscript portion of this archive is like taking a stroll down a vintage version of the Hollywood walk of fame. The who”s who of classic Hollywood have their names on stacks of boxes all mingled together.
Branching off the stack areas are three smaller vaults, one of which contains the archive”s more valuable artifacts such as Max Steiner”s original composition to the film “Gone With the Wind.” Each vault is a thick, concrete cell with special capabilities such as depleting the level of oxygen in case of a fire. However, since special collections moved to the new section of the library, Taylor said the only fire has been a small flame that ignited from the power bar in his office.
To further ensure that the actual reels of film are not consumed by any destructive element, a specially built cold vault, which is basically a 1,000 square foot refrigerator, houses them for safety. This yellow lit vault constantly cycles in fresh air and cycles out hazardous agents such as gases created from old reels of film.
While a lot of the motion picture archive may be served chilled, it has received a warm welcome from researchers interested in film history. In fact, the motion picture archive is a celebrity of sorts that is often courted, especially by DVD companies looking to use the archive”s resources to produce supplementary materials to their DVD sets.
One recent example is Cecil B. DeMille”s silent blockbuster “The King of Kings,” which was released by the Criterion Collection, whose mission statement is “to pull the treasures of world cinema out of the film vaults and put them in the hands of collectors.”
“They had heard that we had the DeMille collection here, and so I sent them descriptions of all the materials that we had bearing on ”The King of Kings,”” D”Arc said. “It has both versions … of the film complete with press books, publicity materials, still photos — most of them from the DeMille papers here.”
Dealing with companies like Criterion is something D”Arc said the motion picture archive does regularly.
“We also had quite a bit of material included in the recent release of ”King Kong,” the 1933 special edition from Warner Home Video,” D”Arc said. “I”m on an on-camera interview in it, and a lot of our material, including the souvenir program you get in the deluxe tin set, is right from the Merian C. Cooper collection here.”
However, building up this kind of collections resume didn”t happen over night. D”Arc said the acquisition of DeMille”s and director Howard Hawk”s papers in 1977 helped begin to generate credibility in the eyes of potential donors. With the acquisition of the Max Steiner and Jimmy Stewart collections in 1981 and 1983, D”Arc said the program gained significant momentum that helped it secure the Cooper collection.
“I first met Merian Cooper”s widow back in 1978 or 1979, and we didn”t get the collection until 1986,” D”Arc said.
The acquisition of Cooper”s papers, coupled with D”Arc”s enthusiasm for his life”s works, is something that Westwood said has ultimately had giant results.
“I”m probably forcing my hand here,” said Westwood, who has been the chair of special collections since 2002. “But I think in some ways the reason we have the newest ”King Kong” and why we”ve had the recent scholarship about Cooper and about his era in Hollywood is very much because Jim D”Arc is urging historians and writers to write on the topic.”
The topics of history and film are twain that come together in the motion picture archive. It”s a photo album in motion that records and reflects its time period in ways that no other medium.
“Movies themselves are something of a milepost or a Geiger counter of the culture that made them and that made them famous,” D”Arc said. “And so like any historical document, but in some very unique ways, movies can be studied to help us understand people of our past.”
Continuing to decode the past is a motivating factor that pushes the motion picture archive and special collections to expand its repertoire for future understanding, but for the present it has only discovered the tip of the iceberg.