The Library of Congress Launches the National Screening Room, Putting Online Hundreds of Historic Films

Pub­lic domain fans, pull your noses out of those musty old books on Project Guten­berg, but keep your eyes glued to the screen!

The Library of Con­gress just cut the rib­bon on the Nation­al Screen­ing Room, an online trove of cin­e­mat­ic good­ies, free for the stream­ing.

Giv­en that the col­lec­tion spans more than 100 years of cin­e­ma his­to­ry, from 1890–1999, not all of the fea­tured films are in the pub­lic domain, but most are, and those are free to down­load as well as watch.

Archivist Mike Mashon, who heads the Library’s Mov­ing Image Sec­tion, iden­ti­fies the project’s goal as pro­vid­ing the pub­lic with a “broad range of his­tor­i­cal and cul­tur­al audio-visu­al mate­ri­als that will enrich edu­ca­tion, schol­ar­ship and life­long learn­ing.”

Can’t argue with that. Those seek­ing to become bet­ter versed in the art of con­sen­su­al kiss­ing whilst mus­ta­chioed will find sev­er­al valu­able take­aways in the above clip.

Per­son­al expe­ri­ence, how­ev­er, com­pels me to expand upon Mashon’s stat­ed goal: artists, the­ater­mak­ers, filmmakers—use those down­load­able pub­lic domain films in your cre­ative projects! (Prop­er­ly attrib­uted, of course.)

You can edu­cate your­self about a par­tic­u­lar clip’s rights and the gen­er­al ins and outs of motion pic­ture copy­rights by scrolling past the clip’s call num­ber to click on “Rights & Access.”

The Library does empha­size that rights assess­ment is the individual’s respon­si­bil­i­ty. Few artists con­ceive of this as the fun part, but do it, or risk the sort of cre­ative heart­break ani­ma­tor Nina Paley set her­self up for when inte­grat­ing inad­e­quate­ly checked out vin­tage record­ings into her fea­ture-length Sita Sings the Blues, hav­ing “decid­ed (she) was just going to use this music, and let the chips fall where they may.”

A hypo­thet­i­cal exam­ple: Liza Min­nel­li’s 2nd or 3rd birth­day par­ty at her god­fa­ther Ira Gershwin’s Bev­er­ly Hills estate?

It’s adorable to the point of irre­sistible, but alas “for edu­ca­tion­al pur­pos­es only,” a des­ig­na­tion that applies to all the Gersh­win home movies.

(Watch em, any­way! You nev­er know when you may be called upon to throw an opu­lent 1940’s‑style tod­dler par­ty. Fore­warned is fore­armed! Insta­gram’s gonna LOVE you.)

Copy­right-wise, a good way to hedge your bets is to look for mate­r­i­al filmed before 1922, like The New­ly­weds, DW Griffith’s meet-cute silent short, star­ring America’s Sweet­heart, Mary Pick­ford. Look to the lead­ing ladies of that era, if you want to find some wor­thy tales (and footage) to shoe­horn into your #metoo doc­u­men­tary.

Sounds like you’ve got a lot of research ahead of you, friend. But wait, there’s more!

Recharge your bat­ter­ies with a vis­it to Peking’s For­bid­den City cir­ca 1903.

Would­n’t that make a fine back­drop to your band’s next music video!

And dibs on the fabled div­ing horse of Coney Island, whose feats of der­ring-do were filmed by Thomas Edi­son.

I could watch that horse dive all day! And so could the audi­ence of that 8‑hour pup­pet opera I may wind up writ­ing one of these days. It’s set in Coney Island….

Read­ers, have a rum­mage and report back. What’s your favorite find in the Nation­al Screen­ing Room? Any plans for future use, real or imag­i­nary? Let us know.

If you’re not imme­di­ate­ly inspired, don’t despair. Just check back. New con­tent will be uploaded month­ly. There are also plans afoot to cre­ate edu­ca­tor les­son plans on his­tor­i­cal and social top­ics doc­u­ment­ed in the col­lec­tion. Teach­ers, imag­ine what your stu­dents might cre­ate with this class­room tool.…

Begin your vis­it to the Nation­al Screen­ing Room here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More

Down­load 6600 Free Films from The Prelinger Archives and Use Them How­ev­er You Like

The Library of Con­gress Makes 25 Mil­lion Records From Its Cat­a­log Free to Down­load

Library of Con­gress Releas­es Audio Archive of Inter­views with Rock ‘n’ Roll Icons

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Mon­day, Octo­ber 15 for anoth­er month­ly install­ment of her book-based vari­ety show, Necro­mancers of the Pub­lic Domain. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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