Films Mine the Archives

Movie Producers Head to the Schlesinger Library to Inform Their Works
Portrait of Betty Friedan, ca.1950, from the Papers of Betty Friedan at the Schlesinger LibraryPortrait of Betty Friedan, ca.1950, from the Papers of Betty Friedan at the Schlesinger Library
By Ivelisse Estrada

Taking a film from paper to screen has many hidden processes. And we don’t just mean craft services. Consider documentaries, for example: Each one—whether airing on your local public television station or playing film festivals around the world—relies on hours of research and stacks of supporting materials. Where is that research done? Who supplies the supporting photographs or film clips? Increasingly, thanks to its treasure trove of materials about women’s lives in America, the answer is the Schlesinger Library.

Diana Carey, a reference librarian in charge of visual resources at the library, handles research requests from movie producers—usually one every couple of months, although she’s noticed a slight uptick in inquiries recently. The pace can be demanding at times. “It’s not that I get a lot of requests,” she says. “But often they need so many different things—and they need them really fast.” Compounding the problem is the fact that most of the filmmakers are outside the Boston area and can’t do the research themselves.

Most of the requests are for photos, but some are for audiovisual materials. “We have a lot of random footage taped straight from the television,” Carey says. “So we may have video of an episode of The Phil Donahue Show that you couldn’t even get from the television station.”

Recently WNET-13 New York, the city’s flagship public-television station, produced a 50th-anniversary retrospective series, Pioneers of THIRTEEN. When the station was looking for clips from the 1970s series Woman Alive!—the first feminist magazine show on PBS, and a collaboration with KERA-TV Dallas/Fort Worth and Ms. magazine—the Schlesinger was the only outlet able to provide them. “That’s just footage you can’t get anywhere else,” says Carey. Not even in the station’s own archives.

For larger projects, Carey is happy to work with other researchers. Eva Payne MDiv ’10, a doctoral candidate in American studies at Harvard University, is no stranger to the collections of the Schlesinger. “I’ve done research there for a number of projects—both my own and assisting others with research,” she says. One recent project to which she made significant contributions is the documentary miniseries Makers: Women Who Make America, which aired in February on PBS and has an extensive website with supporting interviews and materials.

Payne spent weeks looking for images in a number of the library’s collections, including the papers of Betty Friedan and Pauli Murray and the organizational records of the National Organization for Women. “I would look through—with my little white gloves on—hundreds and hundreds of pictures,” she says. “Anything interesting, I’d send a reference photo to the producers, so they could decide if they wanted to get a high-resolution image.”

Despite her familiarity with the Schlesinger, Payne concedes that there were times when the librarians’ knowledge of the collections was invaluable. “You could say to a librarian, ‘Hey, do you know if you have an uncataloged photo of Betty Friedan in a bridesmaid’s dress?’” she explains. “And they’ll say, ‘Oh, I think I remember coming across something like that.’”

As much as she enjoyed the Makers treasure hunt, Payne found working on the documentary satisfying in other ways as well. A resident tutor at Winthrop House, she sent out a notice to her undergraduates about a viewing of Makers at the Harvard College Women’s Center. Afterward, she received several responses from 19- and 20-year-old women “whose minds were just blown,” says Payne. “After working so much on academic projects, doing something that feels like public education feels really rewarding and exciting.”

Diana Carey agrees that it’s gratifying to see how her work translates onscreen. “You get all these requests, and then to see them put together—it’s nice,” she says. She remembers the thrill of seeing her research pay off on the big screen: the moviemaking team for the film Julie & Julia closely studied Paul Child’s photos when designing the set for the Childs’ Paris apartment. “That was unique because they were looking at the photos for content and not just to flash during the film,” Carey says.

Given the library’s impressive—and growing—cache of records, photographs, and artifacts from so many women, known and unknown, who helped make America what it is today, it shouldn’t be long before the Schlesinger once again finds its materials onscreen.

Watch List

Want to see how the Schlesinger’s collections translate to the screen? Add these films to your watch list:

The Roosevelts: An Intimate History
(Directed by Ken Burns, 2014)

Makers: Women Who Make America

(Directed by Barak Goodman, 2013)

The Abolitionists
(Directed by Rob Rapley, 2013)

(Directed by Daniel Anker, 2013)

Pioneers of THIRTEEN: The ’70s—Bold and Fearless
(WNET, 2013)

Feminist: Stories from Women’s Liberation, 1963–1970
(Directed by Jennifer Lee, 2012)

“No Job For a Woman”: The Women Who Fought to Report WWII
(Directed by Michèle Midori Fillion, 2011)

(Directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, 2011)

Leave Your Sleep
(Directed by Natalie Merchant, 2010)

Julie & Julia
(Directed by Nora Ephron, 2009)

They Made America: “Gamblers”
(Directed by Patricia Garcia Rios, 2004)

American Experience: Amelia Earhart
(Directed by Nancy Porter, 1993)

And watch for these films in progress:

A Song of Hope: The Life Story of Pauli Murray
(working title), by Time Travel Productions/Margo Guernsey

Harriet Beecher Stowe, a film by Katherine Brann Fredricks


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