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Moving Image Research at the Library of Congress

Moving Image Collections

Bain News Service. Geraldine Farrar as "Carmen" for "Movies". [1915]. George Grantham Bain Collection. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

The Library's Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division oversees one of the largest collections of motion pictures in the world. Acquired primarily through copyright deposit, exchange, gift and purchase, the collection spans the entire history of the cinema. The Library has been actively collecting motion pictures since 1942, though thanks to the initiative of Thomas Edison and other early film producers, thousands of films were deposited at the Library of Congress beginning in 1894 as still photographs.

Having collected and preserved motion pictures in various forms since 1894, the Library began collecting films made for television in 1949 with the addition of a "Hopalong Cassidy" feature. The Library continues to increase its television holdings today, adding them to the large general collection of moving image materials on film, videotape, and videodisc under the stewardship of the division.

The collection overviews presented below are representative of the breadth of our holdings but are by no means an exhaustive list of all of the film and television we have. Please get in touch to learn more about our collections and all they have to offer!

The Copyright Collection: Copyright deposits comprise the largest, most visible portion of MBRS holdings, and are the materials most often used by patrons. Selection of copyright deposits currently functions as the principal source of current acquisitions. Although the quantity and range of acquired works has expanded since 1942, the concept of selectivity remains. The Copyright Collection therefore represents less a specific, definable collection than an ongoing process of acquisition. It continues to exemplify the wide range of U.S. film and video production and to reflect the diversity of American thought and experience.

Paper Print Collection: The Division’s earliest and most important collection is the Paper Print Collection, which began in 1894. Because at that time there was no provision in the copyright law for registering motion pictures, films were deposited as photographs printed on strips of photographic contact paper. The Paper Print Collection encompasses the full range of filmmaking activity during the early years of the industry, from 1894 to 1912. This collection is the crown jewel of the Library’s moving image holdings, for there is no comparable collection anywhere in the world.

This following short film from the Paper Print Collection is part of several digital collections, including the new National Screening Room.

Traingle-Kay Bee, photographer. William S. Hart in "Devil's Double". [between 1914 and 1926]. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

American Film Institute Collections: With the founding of the American Film Institute (AFI) in 1967, there was finally a national organization that could focus attention on film preservation and actively seek motion picture materials in need of preservation. "Nitrate won't wait!" became their rallying cry. Rather than create new physical facilities for film preservation, AFI assumed the role of catalyst and facilitator -- soliciting material, working with collectors and seeking funds -- while depositing collected films (now also television programs) in existing archives, primarily the Library of Congress. The AFI Collection fills some of the gaps in the Library's other acquisitions, primarily for the years 1912-1946 when the Library did not demand the submission of film prints for copyright. Some 20,000 titles have come to the Library as gifts from AFI. Highlights include: studio collections (original camera negatives from Columbia Pictures, RKO, and Universal); early DeForest sound film experiments in the AFI/Zouary Collection; Georges Melies films in the AFI/Academy Collection; and many films produced for African-American audiences by African American filmmakers.

United Artists Collection: In 1969 the United Artist Corporation presented the Library with its earliest surviving preprint material for approximately 3,000 motion pictures from the pre-1949 film library of Warner Bros. pictures. The collection contains 50 silent features (1913-30); 750 sound features (1927- 48); 1800 sound short subjects(1926-48); and 400 cartoons, among them "Looney Tunes" and "Merrie Melodies." The collection also includes nearly 200 sound features released by Monogram Pictures Corporation and a number of "Popeye" cartoons released by Fleischer Studios. Ironically, there are no United Artists films in the United Artists Collection.

This is an enormous collection of nitrate negatives and masters, which are still undergoing transfer to acetate stock. Most of the safety film copies exist only in the preservation master stage, limiting accessibility for viewing and duplication.

Studio Collections: The Division also holds collections of films from other major Hollywood studios, including Columbia, Fox, MGM, Paramount, RKO, Universal, and Warner.

Gatewood W. Dunston Collection: Dunston was devoted to collecting material relating to the popular cowboy star William S. Hart (pictured at right). In 1957 he left the paper materials of his collection (scripts, scrapbooks, photographs and correspondence) to the Library and the films to the Smithsonian Institution, which transferred them to LC in that same year. Of the approximately 40 nitrate titles, about half are 28mm; only a few of these "non-standard" reels have been converted to standard-gauge acetate and the rest remain unviewable. One particularly interesting item is a sound prologue Hart made for the 1939 release reissue of "Tumbleweeds" (1925).

Researchers should be aware that there are non-Hart films in the Dunston Collection and Hart films scattered among other collections.

Public Archives of Canada/Dawson City Collection: This collection of early theatrical films, known more familiarly as the Dawson Collection, is most notable for its source: a Yukon swimming pool. During the summer of 1978, amid restoration of Dawson City (a gold rush era boom town in the Yukon Territory) workmen unearthed a cache of 35mm nitrate film. The end of a film distribution chain, some 500 reels had accumulated in Dawson City, and in 1929 were dumped as fill in a swimming pool that had come to the end of its usefulness. The region's deep and abiding cold (still today the only known retardant of nitrate deterioration) contributed to a high survival rate of the buried treasure, although water damage took its toll on the top layer of reels. Quick, improvised action on the part of the Public Archives of Canada (now National Archives of Canada, Moving Image and Sound Archives), with the cooperation of the Library of Congress and the American Film Institute, was necessary in order to salvage the survivors. See Sam Kula's "There's Film in Them Thar Hills!" (American Film, July/August 1979) for an action-packed account of the discovery and rescue. The Library has the U.S. productions, some 190 reels, and all have been preserved and cataloged. Although a number of important, and rare, early films (including "Polly of the Circus" [1917], with Mae Marsh and "Bliss" [1917], with Harold Lloyd) were unearthed in Dawson City, many survive only as incomplete copies. Beyond features, there are shorts, several serials, and some news films. 

Harris & Ewing, photographer. Junior High School: Classroom [between 1905 and 1945]. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Harmon Foundation Collection: This small but interesting collection of early educational films is one of the few in MBRS to contain actuality footage from the late 1920s to the 1940s. The Harmon Foundation first produced films beginning in 1926 for use in church worship and later turned its attention to films on peoples of other lands for church mission study. Attracting the interest of educators, these films became the nucleus of a distribution library, to which the Harmon Foundation added new films in its other areas of interest, such as African-American art, but always focusing on youth, constructive achievement and world understanding.

Users of the Harmon Collection should be aware of a counterpart Harmon Collection at the National Archives and Records Administration.

American Archives of Factual Film: An archive of business, industrial, educational, and documentary film, this collection began at Iowa State University in 1974. Several films from this collection about mental health can be viewed in the National Screening Room (see the Online Collections below).

Prelinger Collection: Rick Prelinger is the founder of the Prelinger Archives, a collection of 51,000 advertising, educational, industrial, and amateur films that was acquired by the Library of Congress in 2002. The films in this collection cover an amazing range of topics, from health, hygiene, and nutrition to vocational guidance, human rights, nuclear warfare, and advertisements. The Library is still processing this massive collection, but many of these films can be viewed on the Internet Archive External.

MacDonald Collection: The MacDonald Collection, an extensive archive of historical film donated by historian and film archivist J. Fred MacDonald, contains educational shorts, newsreels, documentaries, government films, patriotic and propaganda films, and advertising, as well as feature films.

Paper Print Collection: The Paper Print Collection also contains quite a bit of actuality footage, as early filmmakers shot footage of a wide range of activities that made up the daily lives of people in the early 20th Century. From people at work to people at play, from major events such as parades, rallies, and fairs to natural disasters, many of these early films can be viewed in various Online Collections listed below.

Thomas J. O'Halloran, photographer. Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower watching a television during the Republican National Convention, Chicago, Illinois. U.S. News & World Report Magazine Photograph Collection. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

NBC Television Collection: Acquired in July 1986, this is a historic collection of 18,000 television programs broadcast, preserved and mostly produced by NBC. With programs dating from the beginning of network television in the United States (1948) through 1977, the NBC Television Collection includes not only performances by major actors and musical talents, but also numerous events featuring significant individuals in public affairs. It also includes programs from the late 1940s and early 1950s, and genres such as sports, game shows, children's programs and daytime television. It should be noted that this acquisition does not include NBC's news archives (which contains raw footage shot for news broadcast) nor any post-1977 material. Request for purchase or reuse of material in the NBC Collection must be made directly to NBC.

National Educational Television (NET) Collections: NET programs held by the Library total around 10,000 titles and date from 1955-69. NET became PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) in 1969, and a few PBS programs from the early 1970s are included in this group of NET programs. The programs in these collections, acquired in several segments throughout the latter half of the 20th Century, are instructional or educational, including, for example, the series Touristen-Deutsch (14 programs teaching elementary conversational German, produced in 1957 by WTTW, Chicago); The Nature of Communism (60 lectures co-produced by Vanderbilt and Notre Dame Universities in 1964); Two Centuries of Symphony (20 programs teaching music appreciation, produced by WGBH, Boston, in 1960); The Basic Issues of Man (12 programs, Georgia Center for Continuing Education, early 1960s); and Search for America (series on American institutions and problems, Washington University). The broadening interests of educational television are also reflected in such series as Casals Master Class, international acquisitions such as Civilization, and programs documenting the social revolution of the 1950s and 1960s such as Escape from the Cage (on mental illness), History of the Negro, Jazz Meets the Classics, and NET Journal.

Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) Collection: The Library will continue to acquire a broad range of public television through PBS's gift of programs to which its distribution rights have expired. It is one of the largest of MBRS's television acquisitions--some 30,000 master videotapes were available for transfer at the time of the agreement and will be preserved by the Library of Congress. PBS will continue to transfer additional programs annually.

It should be noted that the Library also collects public television programs through its other acquisitions activities. Copyright deposits (1950s--) and Off-air recordings (late 1970s-- ) include a wide selection of current programs, which are available to researchers as viewing copies. These also include some programs aired by public television stations but not necessarily distributed by PBS.

American Archive of Public Broadcasting: The Library of Congress and WGBH in Boston have embarked on a project to preserve for posterity the most significant public television and radio programs of the past 60 years. The American people have made a huge investment in public radio and television over many decades, calculated at more than $10 billion. The American Archive will ensure that this rich source for American political, social, and cultural history and creativity will be saved and made available once again to future generations. The Archive includes television and radio broadcasts from local and national public media outlets, many of which are freely available online. Additional digitized content is available onsite at the Library of Congress.

Television News: The Division holds nearly complete weeknight broadcasts of ABC Evening News (1977-1992) and numerous issues of Nightline (beginning in 1987); nearly all CBS news programs (1975-1993); and an extensive collection of MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour.

Vanderbilt Television News Archive Collection: The Vanderbilt Television News Archive is the world's most extensive and complete archives of television news. They have been recording, preserving and providing access to television news broadcasts of the national networks since August 5, 1968. In 1980, the Library of Congress began archiving the videotapes. Vanderbilt has since digitized this material and continues to provide digital access to all of the archive’s news content. The collection spans the presidential administrations of Lyndon Baines Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump. The core collection includes evening news from ABC, CBS, and NBC (since 1968), an hour per day of CNN (since 1995) and Fox News (since 2004). Access to all digitized content is available through the Moving Image Research Center. 

Commercials: The Library holds several collections of television commercials: the Karr, Gitt, and Dartmouth Collections. The Karr Collection contains 1,928 commercials produced during the 1960s and early 1970s and broadcast in the Providence, Rhode Island area. The commercial products advertised include items such as food for human and pet consumption, automobiles, cigarettes, miscellaneous products for indoor and outdoor household use, entertainment products, and various services. Companies which manufactured the products represented in the Karr Collection include Colgate-Palmolive, Campbell's, Chevrolet, General Foods, American Oil Company, Topper Toys, and many more. The Robert R. Gitt Collection consists of 362 different commercials made during the early 1970's and 7 public service announcements from the American Dairy Association. The commercials offer a comprehensive look at consumer society in the U.S. during the early 1970's. A wide variety of goods including personal and cosmetic products, automobiles, toys, foods, and medications are advertised. The Dartmouth College Collection consists of approximately 500 commercials made by Robert Lawrence Productions during the period of 1952 to 1963. The collection contains commercials that were for distribution in the United States as well as ones for Canadian distribution.

Bain News Service. Jap[anese] movies, Zuro Tamizaki. [1926]. George Grantham Bain Collection. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Our collections contain historical film from around the world, including:

  • Japan: features, shorts, actualities, animation, newsreels
  • India: features and shorts
  • Ireland: early films, 1898-1930
  • Italy: shorts, non-fiction features/documentaries, features
  • Russia and the former Soviet Union: shorts and features, films and newsreels about Russia
  • West Africa: features and shorts from countries in the region (Angola, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal)
  • France: early silent films
  • Germany: newsreels, shorts

In addition to films produced in foreign countries, we also hold films about foreign countries, including those places listed above.

Two collections of note are the "Captured Foreign Film Collections" and the "South Vietnam Embassy Collection" described below:

Captured Foreign Film Collections: At the end of World War II a substantial number of films were confiscated in Germany, Italy and Japan and eventually shipped to repositories in the U.S. The films were deposited in the National Archives and Record Administration and the Library of Congress. Although it isn't exactly clear how the materials were divided between the institutions, it can generally be assumed that theatrical entertainment films are more likely to be found in LC, and actuality films are more likely to be available at the National Archives. 1963 copyright legislation returned the film copyrights to their original owners (or successors) and gave the Library screening privileges and permanent custody of the prints. The Library worked with film archives in Germany, Italy and Japan to return the original nitrate prints in exchange for 16mm viewing copies.

Embassy of South Vietnam Collection: The consequences of war have provided yet another interesting collection of motion pictures to MBRS. Shortly after the collapse of the South Vietnamese government in late April 1975, its embassy in Washington, D.C. was closed and emptied; some of its contents found a new home in LC. Among the hastily packed and transferred materials were 527 reels of 16mm film. These films have been inventoried and partially cataloged. The inventory reveals a variety of documentaries, some in English and in multiple copies (presumably for distribution in the U.S.); and more than 400 reels of newsreels, probably all in Vietnamese. Production dates range from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s. Subject matter ranges from general human interest to "hard" war propaganda.

Thomas A. Edison Laboratories, Building No. 5, Main Street & Lakeside Avenue, West Orange, Essex County, NJ. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Edison Laboratory Collection: The Edison Laboratory Collection is the result of a 1965 cooperative agreement with the National Park Service, in which the Library reproduced on safety film (mostly 16mm) the motion pictures found at the Edison Laboratory in West Orange, N.J., shortly after its designation as a national historic site. The project preserved some of the Edison Company's early releases, promotional films for various Edison industries, and some Kinetophone productions (Edison's film-and-sound experiments; the Library lacks the sound elements). An elderly Thomas Edison is also featured in several sound newsreel outtakes from the late 1920s. Reference prints and negatives are available for most of the 75 reels in the collection. Obtaining permission to copy the newsreels can be a problem, because many are unidentified as to source.

Margaret Mead Collection: A sizable collection of 16mm films shot by Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson as part of their anthropological field work has been in the possession of MBRS since the mid-eighties. Most of the footage is unedited, positive camera originals in small rolls or assembled on larger reels of varying lengths. There are some negatives and very few reference prints.

Edward Lynch, photographer. Dr. Margaret Mead, half-length portrait, facing right, reading book. [between 1930 and 1950]. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.
During the 1940s and 1950s many of the originals were screened and even edited for teaching, lecture and study purposes. Using Mead's field notes and photographs (held by the Library's Manuscript and Prints and Photographs divisions respectively), the processing staff must sort through many tiny pieces to make the puzzle whole. To date, two groups of the Mead Collection have been inventoried and cataloged. These are films made during the 1938 expedition among he Iatmul people of New Guinea, as well as footage shot in Bali (1936-39).

Additionally, within the Mead Collection is footage associated with African-American writer and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston. Originally, only eight 16mm rolls of footage taken in Florida between 1927 and 1929 were identified as Hurston material. In 1995, MBRS staff verified that seven 16mm rolls taken in South Carolina in April and May 1940 are also Hurston films. Though Hurston's exact role in the production of these films is not known, the footage documents an African-American church in Beaufort, S.C. which Hurston wrote about extensively. There are reference prints available for viewing for all of the Hurston films in the Mead Collection, and video copies of the original eight rolls.