Archival Research 101: Looking for the Perfect Image
By Toni Bell
My career in documentary film began when I was brought on as a production assistant for Lyn Goldfarb and Alison Sotomayor's Bridging the Divide: Tom Bradley and the Politics of Race, about the former mayor of Los Angeles. During the four-year period on which I worked on the film, I ended up taking on the role of primary archival researcher. The work came at a perfect time for me: I had only been in Los Angeles for a short time, so working on the film gave me the opportunity to learn about the history of my new city. I have since researched several films at various stages of production, as well as celebrity-driven TV shows. Archival research takes patience and persistence, but it also allows you to dive deep into a particular subject and learn everything about it.
Every documentary, whether historical or not, can benefit from some level of archival research. Researching your subject, even if it is contemporary, increases the richness and nuance of the work. Proper research enables you to ask more pointed and directed questions of your experts and interviewees. Research also helps you examine your subject from perspectives that you may not have considered. This can be particularly valuable when you think that you are already familiar with your topic.
When beginning research, it is essential to understand the two types of sources that are available: primary and secondary. Primary sources are created during an event being studied or are examined or created later by a participant in an event who is expressing a point of view. Examples include newspapers, photographs, footage, letters, memoirs and court documents. These sources enable researchers to get a close as possible to what happened during a historical event or period.
I prefer to start with secondary sources, which rely on primary sources for information. This includes work that comments on primary sources, such as reviews, criticism, editorials or essays. Experts such as academics and historians will most likely have spent thousands of hours studying the topic of your film. Take advantage of that fact. Also, watch movies that are related to your film. This can be helpful for several reasons. First, it will give you an idea of what's already out there so you can make your story unique. Second, examining the bibliographies or credits of these secondary sources can provide a wealth of information on specific source material.
For example, Sotomayor and Goldfarb knew that the Los Angeles Police Department would play an integral part in the telling of Tom Bradley's story. He had worked for the LAPD; he had testified in front of the McCone Commission about the police brutality that had sparked the 1965 Watts Rebellion; and his life in the public eye ended with the 1992 Rodney King Rebellion and the resignation of LAPD Chief Daryl Gates. Sotomayor and Goldfarb needed to get a sense of the early culture of the LAPD to understand Bradley's place. It was through reading L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America's Most Seductive City and further discussions with author John Buntin that they learned that he had spent a significant amount of time at the LA City Archives while researching his book. He was very generous in sharing his research log, and he also introduced the filmmakers to Michael Holland, the head archivist there. Armed with Buntin's research suggestions along with additional notes from the filmmakers, I headed to the archives for the first of many weeks of research. Some unique items Holland presented to me were scrapbooks of years of newspaper clippings collected by Chief William Parker about every story about the LAPD during his many decades on the force. The collection not only included national and city publications but neighborhood papers and those targeted at communities of color. Every clipping included the date of the article and the source. Most of the clippings were in reasonably good condition. For those that weren't, I was able to gather the information I needed to search for broadcast- or nearly broadcast-ready clippings in other archives.
Doing research is often a solitary endeavor, but you'll soon learn that a friendly librarian or archivist can be your best friend. The relationship can be mutually beneficial. They often become just as invested in the project as the filmmakers. On one visit, Holland mentioned that the LAPD had reels of 16mm tape that had been stored there since the 1980s. Some of the reels dated as far back as the 1950s. The footage log was incredibly sparse, and Holland did not have the proper projector to view the material. The Bridging the Divide filmmakers reached out to their contacts with the LAPD to first get permission to see the material. I borrowed Goldfarb's projector and reached out to an editor who owned a splicer. The deal was that in exchange for viewing the footage, I would provide a detailed footage log for the LA City Archives and the LAPD.
Types of Archives
There are three types of archives: institutional, collecting and archives that are a combination of the two. Institutions acquire and maintain records of parent or inter-related organizations. These can include the special collections at academic institutions such as USC or UCLA. Collecting archives collect materials about a defined area. The National Archives, for example, gathers content that is relevant to the history of the United States. US Presidential libraries include resources that are germane to a given presidential administration. The Mayme A. Clayton Library is a collection of material that focuses on the African-American experience in Los Angeles.
Special collections at academic intuitions are available not only to students and professors but the public as well. Their databases are often available through online portals, and appointments can be made to view materials on site. Most academic institutions leave it up to the documentary filmmaker to do their due diligence when it comes to obtaining the appropriate rights to use the materials. Prices vary depending on the type and quality of the reproduced content. If the college or university from which you graduated has a special collection, start your search there. Most institutions offer a significant alumni discount to reproduce materials.
Researchers often request finding aids from institutions. A finding aid is a catalog of the materials in a particular collection. The finding aid for the Tom Bradley Collection at the UCLA Special Collections was incredibly detailed. It included a listing of 100 boxes that outlined the contents of each folder therein. Unfortunately, most finding aids are not that detailed.
Cataloging items in detail takes time and money. Most institutions are too strapped for funding to make collections available to the public as quickly as possible; librarians will opt to do general cataloging instead. Rather than a list of specific memos, information on the box may just state "memos." Despite these challenges, librarians are a great resource and have uncanny memories. If you're lucky, you may be speaking with the librarian who did the initial catalog of the collection, and they may be able to point you in the right direction. Most special collections allow you to bring a computer into the reading room so you can take notes. Sometimes, they allow researchers to take photographs. UCLA and USC both allow this, provided you use a transparent overlay with the institution's logo over the material.
Also, it's not just universities and museums that have archives or special collections. If someone has written about, photographed, mapped or filmed a subject, there is most likely an archive for it. And you should never assume that an archive for a group of materials does not exist. Always call and ask. The American Automobile Association of Southern California has an archive of photographs and maps of neighborhoods and roadways of the Los Angeles area that dates back to the early 1900s. Organizations such as the ACLU and AFL-CIO often have collections that are categorized by city, state and nationwide. Even corporations maintain archives of some sort.
In the past 20 years, there has been a drive for everyday people to contribute to archives for posterity. Most of these are in the form of audio, like with the StoryCorps series on NPR. However, local libraries across the nation make calls to ordinary folks for photographs and footage. The Los Angeles Public Library has a photo collection that can be viewed online. The collection was started shortly after World War II, and in the 1990s the library began the "Shades of LA" project to encourage residents to donate copies of family photos. The collection now consists of over 100,000 digitized images that can viewed, downloaded and affordably licensed via the Web portal.
How to Search
When searching for the perfect image, footage or document, persistence is critical. I usually start my searches on the micro level, by specific terms and dates. If I don't find anything, then I go macro. This means more research time, which can often yield some beautiful surprises.
For example, for Bridging the Divide, Goldfarb and Sotomayor wanted images that showed the Jewish community's support of Bradley during his first mayoral campaign, but they didn't want the usual photo of the politician at the synagogue wearing a yarmulke. There were several of these types of photos available in the Tom Bradley Collection at UCLA.
I began my search by looking at Bradley's campaign and mayoral schedules, and I made a list of every synagogue and Holy Day events that Bradley attended during his tenure. I used that list to compile a list of places to contact. I had no luck. I then did searches on the Online Archive of California—again, nothing. But researchers are not inclined to abandon their searches; I continued to keep my eye open for this particular item.
Months later, my search priorities shifted to looking for negative quotes that Mayor Sam Yorty (Bradley's predecessor) said about Bradley; I had exhausted searching for material using Bradley's name, so I decided to branch out. I did an extensive search of the 1969 Los Angeles mayoral race candidates. I discovered that deceased Republican Congressperson Alphonso Bell Jr. had been a candidate in that same race for several weeks before dropping out. His papers are at the University of Southern California's Special Collections.
His papers contained not only artifacts from his brief mayoral run but also from those of Yorty and Bradley. It was in one of these folders that I found a photocopy of a special edition of the defunct Heritage Southwest Jewish Press entitled "LA Jewry All Out for Bradley." It included several photos of Bradley with Jewish leaders, as well as articles written by those in the Jewish community who were in full support of his candidacy. The photocopy was far from broadcast-ready, however. The next step was to find a viable copy.
I searched the Online Archive of California and discovered that the State of California Library had a version on microfiche. In my conversation with the state librarian, I mentioned that I had found the name of the publisher, but the paper had gone out of business during the 1980s. She did a quick search and discovered there were copies of the Heritage Southwest Jewish Press that were part of the Western States Jewish History Archive Collection at UCLA. When I viewed the collection. I found a nearly broadcast-ready copy, along with a copy of the will of a publisher who had passed away many years before.
Now I needed to determine who had the rights. The will had the names of two of the publisher's sons. I did a Google search and found an email address for one of them. I introduced myself and described the film, and I explained that I was seeking the rights holder to get permission to use the paper in the movie. He called me within 24 hours. He was excited about the film and said he remembered when Bradley came into the office to take pictures for the edition. He introduced me by email to his brother, who held the literary rights, and I was able to obtain the rights to use the paper.
When doing archival research, it's important to look in the obvious places for material, but if you are struggling to find the perfect image, don’t be afraid to expand your search. The joy comes when one finds that one photograph or piece of footage that perfectly illustrates the story as the producer, director or editor envisions telling it. It's priceless.
Toni Bell is the Filmmaker Services Manager at the IDA. Her work can be seen in several documentaries and TV shows, including BET/Centric's Being and the upcoming The Ballad of Don Lewis. She is available for archival research and teaches the seminar "Archival Research 101." Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @TBCello