The Animation World in the Library of Congress

As part of Animation World Magazine's monthly Hidden Treasures column on archives, Patrick Loughney, Ph.D. defines what animation treasures lie behind the massive doors of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C

The Library of Congress began collecting motion pictures at the end of the 19th century as part of the copyright registration process. (The U.S. Copyright Office is part of the Library of Congress.) The first copyrighted "movie" was a series of Edison Kinetoscopic Records registered on October 6, 1893 by a key assistant to Thomas Edison named W.K.L. Dickson. Dickson was the primary inventor of the first practical motion picture camera, the Edison Kinetograph, and the first peephole viewing machine, the Edison Kinetoscope. From that date to the present, the Library has collected descriptive documentation and other materials relating to virtually every movie copyrighted in the United States, including animated theatrical and independent short subjects, feature films and TV broadcasts. The earliest animated film in the Library of Congress is the stop-motion The Enchanted Drawing (Edison, 1900), featuring the work of movie pioneer J. Stuart Blackton, who later went on to co-found the Vitagraph Company of America.

The earliest animated film in the Library of Congress is the stop-motion The Enchanted Drawing (Edison, 1900), featuring the work of movie pioneer J. Stuart Blackton.

The earliest animated film in the Library of Congress is the stop-motion The Enchanted Drawing (Edison, 1900), featuring the work of movie pioneer J. Stuart Blackton.

Audio-Visual Materials Come of Age

During the first half of the 20th century the Library of Congress was largely content with collecting documentation about motion pictures in place of the actual films. That changed, however, in May 1942, when Archibald MacLeish (Librarian of Congress from 1939 to 1942) founded a division to collect and preserve motion pictures, in addition to providing filmographic information for researchers. MacLeish saw that movies, radio broadcasts and recordings in all formats, constituted essential records of American history. He believed it was appropriate for audio-visual materials of all kinds to be accorded an equal place in the nation's Library--alongside books, newspapers, photographs, maps and other traditional forms of library materials--so they could be studied by future generations for information about contemporary history and culture.

Today, the Library of Congress is the nation's largest publicly funded motion picture research and preservation center. Through the activities of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound division and its Motion Picture Conservation Center, the Library carries out its mandate to collect, preserve and make available for research the largest collection of American produced motion pictures in the world. Broadly described, the Library's motion picture collection has grown continuously since 1893 and now amounts to over 250,000 film prints (35mm and 16mm) and more than 300,000 television broadcasts in film and video formats. In scope, these materials encompass the entire history of American film production and a considerable selection of foreign films over the past one hundred years.

Preservation is Key

As one might imagine in a collection of this scope and size, the number of silent and sound era animated films in the Library of Congress is unsurpassed, largely because of its efforts to recover and conserve what remains of America's motion picture heritage. Over half of all movies made in America between 1893 and 1951 have been lost through deterioration and neglect. Animated films of the silent era have suffered in particular. However, due to the Library's preservation efforts over the past thirty years, a considerable number have been preserved in their original 35mm format and are listed in the 1995 finding aid Silent Animated Films at the Library of Congress, an eighty page guide to silent "cartoons" now available for on-site viewing to qualified researchers. The guide includes many examples of both classic and long-forgotten animated works, such as Aesop's Fables, Alice Comedies, Felix the Cat, Goldwyn-Bray Pictographs, Hearst-Vitagraph News Pictorials, Katzenjammer Kids, Mutt and Jeff, Tony Sarg's Almanac and the timeless Out of the Inkwell series. (In 1995 the Library issued a six-part series of videos presenting rare films preserved in its collection, including one with selections devoted to the Origins of Animation, 1900-1921.

Sound era animation is strongly represented in the Library's collection of original 35mm camera negatives by many Warner Bros.' animated shorts produced during the 1930s and `40s, and by the projection prints and/or research copies of a majority of the theatrical animated features and short subjects distributed in America since WWII. Television broadcasts have been collected by the Library since the 1950s and the series for which selected programs are available range from Beany and Cecil, Deputy Dawg, I Am the Greatest--The Adventures of Muhammad Ali, Walt Disney Presents, Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color, to Winky Dink and You.

The Library of Congress is located on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The Library of Congress is located on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Sheltering History

Today, the goal of the M/B/RS division remains the same as when it was defined by MacLeish at mid-century: to maintain an on-going collection of motion picture, broadcast and recorded sound materials that broadly document the history and creativity of the American people. In 1989 the U.S. Congress established the Library of Congress National Film Preservation Board to promote awareness of the need to preserve America's film history. To help accomplish that mission, Congress also created the Library's National Film Registry, requiring that the Librarian of Congress, Dr. James Billington, select twenty-five American films per year to be singled out for their historical, aesthetic and cultural importance. Two hundred and twenty five films have been added to the Registry to date and the animated films already chosen include Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Winsor McCay's Gertie the Dinosaur, Fantasia (1940), Magical Maestro (1952) and Chuck Jones' What's Opera, Doc?

Thus, the Library's mission to collect motion picture and recorded sound materials continues. Thousands of new items come into our collection every month, including animated films and videos from around the world. And, as our dedicated staff has for more than one hundred years, they will be cataloged and preserved for posterity, for both the present generation of researchers and those not yet born.

Viewing Information

The Library of Congress is located on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. The motion picture collections are available through the Film and Television Reading Room, located in the James Madison building (LM-338) at 101 Independence Avenue, SE, Washington, D.C. 20540. Public hours are from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Monday through Friday. Film and television programs are available for viewing on the premises and only to those working on a project leading to a formal publication. For Internet information on the motion picture collections and other resources of the Library of Congress, please see http:/lcweb.loc.gov or www.loc.gov

Patrick Loughney is head of the Moving Image Section of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting & Recorded Sound Division of The Library of Congress.

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