I once got lost in the Library of Congress. I was on a high school tour when a couple of friends and I made a wrong turn and ended up in library personnel office space. A nice man showed us how to get back where we belonged. The library just unveiled its National Screening Room, and I’m having a similar experience trying to wrap my mind around it.
In 1800, Congress decided to establish a library for itself. It was certainly not a public library, or even a federal government library. It was specifically the Library of Congress. Its scope has grown since then.
Now, anyone can apply to visit it and use its collection, the largest library collection in the world. It has grown to more than 19.5 million items. And anyone can take advantage of its digital collections without leaving home. It has digitized more than 2 million items.
These include manuscripts, printed language materials, printed music, photographs, sound recordings, and film/video. I set the link above to show 160 items per gallery page in alphabetical order by title. The first of three pages got only into the letter J. The Library has divided the whole set into various different collections, each sortable in different ways. Thus the feeling of being lost for a first-time visitor.
Organization of the National Screening Room
The Library of Congress announced its National Screening Room on September 26, 2018. The project opened with 281 titles curated from the various digital collections. It will add new items every month. All of them are available as streaming files. Whatever the Library believes to be in public domain are also available for download.
Some larger groupings
These initial films represent a wide variety of the history of American film. Some come from the National Film Registry. Congress established it in 1988 with the National Film Preservation Act. It authorized the Library of Congress to select up to 25 “culturally, historically, or aesthetically” important films every year for preservation in a special vault.
The first batch, from 1989, included only well-known feature films. Since then, it has grown to include newsreels, documentaries, and early experiments with the technology. Of the current 725 films in the registry, the National Screening Room has selected 65. So far, they don’t include any of the most famous features, which, after all, are easy to find.
In addition, the National Screening Room has selected 33 newsreels from All-American News. Made between 1942 and 1945, this series was aimed specifically at an African-American Audience.
Thomas Edison, perfected the technology of camera and film. The National Screening Room starts with 38 Edison films. The oldest appeared in 1891. The next oldest, a mere 45 frames of a man sneezing (1894) became the first motion picture to be accepted for copyright registration.
D.W. Griffith pioneered many of the camera and editing techniques that give films their emotional power to this day. He is represented by 25 of his shorts.
Smaller groupings and miscellaneous selections
Other selections include footage of prominent Americans from President William McKinley to Adam Clayton Powell. You can see entertainers like Frank Sinatra and Art Carney, too. There is a brief tour of San Francisco taken just days before the 1906 earthquake and fire. And another taken immediately afterward. The most recent film in the National Screening Room shows an early gay rights parade in 1970.
Not all the films in the National Screening Room are the work of professionals. The announcement of its opening coincided with George Gershwin’s 120th birthday. So the Library selected 17 home movies from the Ira Gershwin archive, including five reels dedicated to the second birthday party of Liza Minelli.
The National Screening Room exists for educational purposes. Its web page notes that some people might find some of the films offensive. But with 281 works to choose from, people looking for entertainment should have no trouble finding it.