Lillian Michelson was celebrated as a “force of nature” librarian devoted to helping Hollywood filmmakers get the details right at an event on January 27 to unveil a new online home at the Internet Archive for her extensive collection of books, photos, scrapbooks and clippings.
The Michelson Cinema Research Library was opened with an animated version of the research icon cutting a virtual ribbon to an audience of more than 300 people watching online. The public got a first glimpse of 1,300 books that are now digitally available—part of a million items in the rich collection that Michelson donated to the Internet Archive in December.
“Now, for the first time, anyone, anywhere on the planet can go roam into the halls of Lillian’s research library,” said Thomas Walsh, a production designer and former president of the Art Directors Guild, speaking on a panel at the event. “It’s a really unique, eclectic collection. The books go back to the 1700s. Nothing she had is in print anymore. It’s an extraordinary range of material.”
Walsh looked for nearly eight years to find a place to house the content, which art directors and others relied on for creating accurate visual backstories to movies. Whether it was finding blueprints of a nuclear submarine or photos of the interior of a 1950s police station, Michelson was respected for being tenacious in pursuit of answers to inform movie productions. In Michelson’s decades of research, she worked on movies such as Rosemary’s Baby, Scarface, Fiddler on the Roof, Full Metal Jacket, The Graduate, and The Birds.
Brewster Kahle, Digital Librarian and founder of the Internet Archive, said he was amazed when he opened up the first boxes from the Michelson Library and saw the variety and extent of raw materials. Making an internet equivalent of the library will be a huge challenge, but one that also is a great opportunity.
“It’s not just a hodge-podge of used books. It is a complete collection that served a community. It comes with a focus,” Kahle said of the Michelson Cinema Research Library that filled some 1600 boxes on 45 pallets. “The Internet Archive is starting to receive whole libraries. The idea of bringing those online is not just bringing those books and materials online. It’s bringing a community online.”
Daniel Raim, Academy Award-nominated director and panelist at the event, described Michelson as a storyteller whose work was central to helping create a movie’s narrative.
“I always found it fascinating to spend time in Lillian’s library— — and now online at the Internet Archive—it sparks your imagination,” said Raim, who produced and directed a 2015 documentary Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story, about Michelson, now 92, and her husband, Harold, a storyboard artist and production designer, who died in 2007. The film pays tribute to the beloved couple and their contribution behind the scenes to some of the greatest movies in the past 50 years.
After the panel discussion, the Internet Archives hosted a viewing party of the documentary.