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93-year-old Lillian Michelson has been helping Hollywood’s top filmmakers with their research since she began volunteering at the film library on Samuel Goldwyn Studios’ lot in 1961. Almost 60 years later, she is donating the Michelson Cinema Research Library — which contains over 1 million books, images, maps, periodicals and more — to the Internet Archive, a non-profit organization dedicated to building a digital library with universal access.
“Frankly, my imagination was bound the fact that it was a movie library, a library to help people in my industry,” she says of the donation. “It never occurred to me to have a worldwide concept, that it could go all over the planet and help people in countries everywhere. It really expanded my thinking, which is a very good thing.”
A longtime lover of cinema, Michelson fell into film research easily. “It was, for me, the perfect combination, because I always loved movies, it was the original way to escape, and the idea that I could help people. It seemed like a perfect fit.”
Michelson and her husband, Harold (a renowned storyboard artist and art director) moved to California in the 1940s after he got a job as illustrating movie posters. Michelson bought the library at Samuel Goldwyn Studios after volunteering there for eight years and, over the next five decades, researched dozens of films such as Rosemary’s Baby, The Birds, and Fiddler on the Roof, looking into everything from period architecture to CIA office layouts to undergarments from different cultures.
In 2015, documentarian Daniel Raim directed Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story, a film chronicling the Michelsons’ impact on Hollywood. ”You don’t know someone until you make a documentary about them,” jokes Raim, who has been a friend of the Michelsons for years. “I was very curious to understand both her research process and the value that she brings to movies. Lillian can find what you’re not you’re not supposed to find, she helps you see what you’re not supposed to see.”
“To hear her tell stories about how she would get information,” he continues, “like what does the inside of a Russian nuclear submarine, for Hunt for Red October, look like? She called the FBI. Her ability to call anyone and get any information by sweet-talking them; she’s a film research movie detective.”
Michelson could find anything. In Raim’s documentary, she talks about working on Fiddler on the Roof and the filmmakers needed to know what a Jewish woman’s undergarments looked like in 1890s for the”Matchmaker” number. Of course, there are no photos of such clothing items, so Michelson sat on a bench at Fairfax and Beverly near a Jewish deli and spoke to women who were about the right age to have been alive in that era. She explained her project and asked about their undergarments until one woman ran home and grabbed a sewing pattern for her to reference. This research inspired the outfits that Τevye’s daughters wear in the number: knee length bloomers with scalloped edges.
Michelson retired a decade ago, after her husband (who did story boards for The Graduate) passed in 2007. Since then, the library has been housed at the Art Directors Guild until the Los Angeles Times wrote a piece on the collection this summer, catching the eye of a board member at the Internet Archive. The organization was an ideal fit to take over the library, as they will be able to keep the collection intact and digitize it, making it available for free on the internet.
“It’s complete collections like this that make so much more of a difference than just a hodgepodge of stuff that’s on Google images,” says Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive. “Having materials is so much better than just straight images from who knows where because you can know what you’re looking at, which is sometimes the hard thing about the internet. The library is so much more than the sum of the individual pieces, it’s a collection.”
Speaking to translation of the physical collection to the internet, Kahle says the challenge is “not so much the digitization, that’s a mechanical problem (it’s expensive and takes a while to do), it’s going to be making a useful resource for the original community it served, Hollywood, and also others.” Kahle hopes that once the library is digital, it will be used by artists, architects, students, video game creators, and more from all over the world.
The Internet Archive will host a ribbon cutting ceremony on Jan. 27 to commemorate the donation, which will feature a Q&A with Michelson and a screening of Raim’s documentary. The digitization of the collection depends completely on funding, but the organization plans to have the first several thousand books digitized before the event. For Michelson, it’s the perfect ending to a dream come true.
“I have no idea what the future is going to bring after this terrible time, but I have a feeling it will be pure escape for a while,” she says, reflecting on the pandemic and the future of entertainment. “And there’s nothing wrong with fairytales, believe me. I raised myself on fairy tales, and the biggest one I would never dream of happened to me, so I know they can come true.”
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