Report of the 2008 Coutts Nijhoff Award Winner
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I was fortunate to be selected as the 2008 recipient of the Coutts Nijhoff International West European Specialist Study Grant. My project was to research film libraries and archives in Paris, with the perspective of a literature scholar making the transition to film studies.
I come from a literary background. Before becoming a librarian, I completed a Ph.D. in French, with a dissertation on Léo Malet (1909-1996), considered by many to be the father of the French roman noir or hardboiled detective novel, in the tradition of Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler. After revising the manuscript into a book with Editions Rodopi, however, I found that I was ready to move on to something else that would allow me to pursue my interest in late-20th-century French language and culture.
Meanwhile, my job as a Catalog Librarian and Associate Professor at the University of Mississippi Libraries had evolved to include both media selection and media cataloging, in addition to my responsibilities as selector and cataloger for modern languages. I had become well aware that several professors on the Ole Miss campus had a scholarly interest in film, and I decided that perhaps this would be a good direction for my interests as well.
But that transition was not as easy as I had imagined it to be. Though my approach to writing about films would be very similar to how I write about literature – discussing the representation of various trends and theories through imagery – I found that all of my familiar reference sources and databases did not include the information I was looking for. Also, how to find actual copies of the films that interested me, in the formats of my preference, was not so obvious. My experience led me to consider that if I, a professionally trained librarian who regularly orders and catalogs films and film resources, was having difficulty finding what I needed, what must it be like for the “average” scholar?
After being notified of my selection, I made the decision to complete my travel in Paris in the month of November, mostly to avoid the high-tourist season, when Paris is warmer than I like (and they do not handle the heat like we do in Mississippi!) and more crowded and expensive. And because my home institution, the University of Mississippi, was selected as the location for the first Presidential Debate of the season, I did not want to miss any of the excitement. So November it was, but because of the state of the economy (and the exchange rate), I was going to be able to stay for only 10 days, instead of 14, including days for travel and recovering lost luggage. Therefore, I would need to be extremely focused.
At the suggestion of the Grant Selection Committee, I took advantage of being in the Los Angeles area in June for the ALA Annual Meeting and explored some American film libraries and archives in Southern California. In four days, I made visits to the University of Southern California’s Film and Television Library, the University of California at Los Angeles’s Film Archive, the American Film Institute’s Louis B. Mayer Library, and the Library and (separate) Archive of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (as in, “I’d like to thank the Academy for this Oscar”). Since my research interests are in French film, rather than American film, I was mostly using these institutions to help answer the question “What do potential researchers need to know before coming here?”, since most of what I would need would be in Paris. For example, it would be good for someone to know that the AFI provides resources for filmmakers, and not film scholars. Thus, they can tell you about the lens that was used in which camera on a film, but not help you find reviews of the film itself. I compare this to the difference between studying literature and studying the history of the book. Also, it would also have been nice to know that neither cameras nor notebooks with pockets are allowed inside the Academy’s library.
Though each institution was unique and subject to its own protocol, it was an invaluable experience to have for comparison with the institutions I visited in Paris: the Médiathèque of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, the Institut Nationale de l’Audiovisuel (Inathèque), and the Archives du Centre Nationale de Cinématographie – all of which are housed in the same room of the National Library (BNF), and share a service desk, but do not interact – as well as the Bibliothèque du Film, housed in the Cinémathèque de France. Like any library experience in France, the level of bureaucracy required for getting what you need separates the amateurs from the truly devoted researchers. But these institutions have amazing resources to share; if only they would do it “our way”.
While in Paris, I was technically working on two projects: one article on finding resources on French film in Paris, which I will submit to ACRL, and another article on the comedy films of Francis Veber, a screenwriter-turned-director, who has made some of the highest grossing comedies in France, but who remains practically ignored by American academia. I hope to eventually submit an article on Veber to a journal of French studies. Then I would like to return to Paris to research another comedy director, because I think this area of French culture is largely misunderstood.
I am extremely grateful to ACRL, WESS and, most of all, Coutts Nijhoff for giving me the opportunity to pursue a new direction of research.