When it comes to documentary construction, one of the first steps, from my understanding anyway, is research and that step gets repeated time and time again and the story develops. I've been working on a particular documentary on and off for a few years now and it still returns to the research stage. Filmmakers can be walking the very first steps in production where their research could include rudimentary fact finding, an archival and stock footage search and much more. Filmmakers and editors can also be in the middle of post when they find what could really be useful is finding that one person's interview could connect the dots or maybe some unique archival imagery would really bring some impact to that particular sequence. In other words, research is a time consuming, but necessary and valuable aspect of constructing a film. Last week I traveled to Washington D.C. for my first research experience at the Library of Congress (LOC) and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). The first day I visited The Motion Picture Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division (M/B/RS) and the Prints and Photographs Division at the Library of Congress in the James Madison Memorial Building. This building is a huge early 70's design and located directly behind the main LOC.
I spent most of the day in the M/B/RS room using both their online database (accessible to anyone who wants to visit the LOC site) and their localized database which has many many more titles. There you can ask for assistance from the small but very helpful staff. They can give you a bit of a 101 as to how best to search through certain keywords and how to narrow it by adding 'movingim' or 'motion picture' in certain fields. If you let them know what kinds of imagery and content your interested in, they might steer you to a collection donated by an individual, production company or organization.
I printed out several searches, but I didn't request anything this time around. It usually takes up to a week, or in some cases several, to receive requests for viewing. Their vaults are off-site and must be transported to the library on a per request basis. Just doing the searches can take quite a while. Some titles do have a compressed video link. For instance, I noticed a lot of the Thomas Edison films (still pictured above) were available to view, but others weren't. The visit to their M/B/RS was a much more relaxed experience than that of their Prints and Photographs Division.
After spending the morning and early afternoon searching for footage, I walked across the hall to take a look at still imagery. Not so fast. I was required to go downstairs to apply for a Reader Card first. Downstairs you wait in line to show a drivers license or passport, another line to fill out an application at a computer station and yet another to have your photo taken and Reader Card made.
After that process has been completed you can return to the Prints and Photograph Reading Room (or whatever other divisions that require a Reader Card) where you are checked in with your new ID. There, you're asked to put all belongings, sans one single sheet of blank paper, into a locker. You are then allowed to enter and look around.
In this room you can actually look at originals, which is why I imagine there is more security. The producer/director I was there with found some beautiful stereoscopic, 3-D imaging photographic cards on the subject we were searching for.
You can search by index cards organized alphabetically by subject or through their computer database. With each search result, there is an identifying number that takes you to filing cabinets and drawers. Not everything is on-site in this situation either, and like the M/B/RS room, you must request off-site items and return for them in a week or more, depending on the requested item. LOC closes at 5 in the afternoon.
The next day we drove to the National Archives at College Park location (NARA), which is in College Park, Maryland just outside of D.C.. This is where the Motion Pictures and Sound and Video Recordings department is located along with 6 or 7 other divisions, such as Still Pictures, Microfilm, Nixon materials, etc.
There is a more intense security system at the National Archives. You must go through a security check similar to that at airports, but less annoying and much cleaner. After security, if you are a new member or if your card has expired, you must reregister. I had never been to the Archives, so I went through a 20 minute computer guided orientation and photo for my Researcher Card, which is good for a year. You must come with a drivers license or passport or you're not getting in.
There are also strict rules about what you can and can't take into research rooms. There are lockers in the basement where you can store your belongings. Laptops are permitted in the research rooms, but you must register/check them in at the properties counter. There you're given a slip of paper with the serial number of your properties. Then you go through a quick security check where you present your properties, properties slip and your Researcher Card. Once through there you are free to roam the research rooms, although you must check in at each research room you enter.
Staff is exceptionally helpful and patient here too. There were a handful of other researchers there that day, doing searches on the local databases or by way of the many index card catalogues boxed by categories in many rows of moving shelf walls. Some were screening films in the flatbed rooms, others on old 3/4" tape, VHS' and DVDs. Some were making self-service dubs (credit may be purchased in order to use copy machines, or purchase CDs or DVDs).
If you can't or don't want to make copies on your own, NARA can arrange for vendors to do so for you. Most material at the Archives is public domain but there is material that was originated by an outside source and therefore may be protected by copyright. I noticed a copyright stamp on some of the index cards that were for films from let's say those studio propaganda newsreels like Fox Movietone or Paramount News.
I started out doing index card searches, which actually helped get me familiar with the different categories various kinds of films were filed under. Then I switched to databases which provided a lot of detail as to content, format, etc.
If interested in viewing something on film, a researcher is required to fill out a request slip. The slips are gathered in an inbox at the front desk of the room and picked up at scheduled intervals. It takes about an hour from the pick up time for the film to be retrieved and set on the back counter by the flatbed viewing room.
Once there, you can go into the viewing room and thread a flatbed machine. This I thought was a lot of fun since I am a post flatbed editor (However, I know that this was incredibly labor intensive back in the day. It would maybe not be so exhilarating if I had to splice and glue or tape for every cut day in and day out). Here's where you can view the real thing and make notes or a copy. There are direct inputs for recording to a camera or other dv devices.
They were long days. NARA stays open until 9P.M. on certain days (although the last film pull is always at 3:30P.M., I believe) and it does take a considerable amount of time just to do searches, much less view and duplicate. I definitely recommend taking several days, if not longer, if you are planning a visit. Plus, if research and archival footage is of any interest to you, this is a place you'll want to hang out for a good while. I wish I'd had more time this trip because there would have been so much more to see and search for, for this project as well as others. I look forward to my next visit.