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Hawking Hollywood History : Burbank Library Seeks Buyer for Showbiz Memorabilia

May 01, 1996|JOSE CARDENAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BURBANK — They are the kind of problems that require attention to detail. If you're a costume designer for a movie set in 1820s France, how do you reproduce the kind of dresses women wore? If you're preparing a TV movie on a murder at sea, how do you show what a drowned body looks like?

Both answers, and thousands of others, can be found in an odd collection of showbiz memorabilia and unusual research materials at the Burbank Central Library. Each year, researchers from Hollywood stop by to find just the right answer hidden in the 45,000 items housed in the Warner Research Collection.

Recently, however, a tight budget and the need for a new library has led the City Council to do some research of its own.

Selling the collection, appraised at $5 million, would easily cover the estimated $4.5-million cost of replacing the Buena Vista Branch Library, a project the city has wanted to fund since 1989.

"It's the only way of getting the money for a new library," said Sandra Christopher, Burbank's library services director.

The small Buena Vista Branch is riddled with problems, such as poor air conditioning and electrical systems and earthquake hazards, Christopher said.

The collection, originally the Warner Bros. Studio Research Library, was donated by the entertainment company to Burbank 20 years ago. Since then, it has been housed in the Burbank Central Library's second floor, where the library's staff has nearly doubled its size.

The collection still holds several hundred Warner Bros. memorabilia items, such as set design photographs, drawings, posters and scripts of classic movies--including "Casablanca"--dating back to the 1930s and '40s. There are also research books, magazines, maps and newspaper clippings--many of them rare and valuable items published in the 19th century.

Among the items available are a series of world atlases printed by the London Times in the 1800s, an 1830 copy of the American Almanac--the predecessor of the World Almanac--and foreign publications such as "Historia De La Marina Real Espan~ol," an 1829 book on the Spanish Royal Navy.

"[The Warner Collection] is a major resource with hard-to-find materials the industry can use. You're probably looking at a major studio buying it," said Steve Hanson, head of the USC Cinema-Television Library, which houses the Warner Bros. Archives, a repository similar to, though larger than, the Burbank collection.

Using the wide range of research materials, the Burbank librarians often answer questions in a variety of areas such as fashion, art and history.

Charging entertainment companies $60 an hour plus the cost of copies, Burbank has netted about $100,000 in the last few years, Christopher said.

In 1993, however, as a result of a task force's study, the city began considering selling the collection.

The task force found, among other things, that the 2,900-square-foot facility where the collection is housed is filled beyond capacity: 50 boxes of unshelved books sit in the city's warehouse.

Without appropriate shelving and storage, the force found, many of the collection's rare and valuable titles are falling apart. The force also addressed safety concerns. For example, the crowded conditions create a fire hazard, the bookstands lack seismic bracing and the width of the aisles does not comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Additionally, the committee found that unless the collection is transferred to laser discs or other media, it may have outlived its use, since the entertainment industry increasingly is showing signs of preferring high-tech databanks as research tools.

Getting rid of the troubled collection seems like the logical way for the city to solve another problem: its seven-year unproductive effort to replace the outdated Buena Vista branch, Christopher said.

The 8,000-square-foot branch library was built in 1948 to hold 30,000 books, Christopher said. The library now bulges with 60,000 volumes, half of which are forcefully jammed into the shelves or sitting in carts by the walls.

And this week's heat is a reminder that summer-like weather can make for the worst at Buena Vista, which serves about one-third of Burbank's approximately 100,000 residents. About once a month, the air-conditioning system breaks down, sending branch librarian Nancy Tidwell to set up fans throughout the building and call the repairman--all while trying to control the 100 or so grade-schoolers who come twice a week to the library's reading programs.

"There's just no telling when the air conditioning is going to go out," Tidwell said. "It's certainly not a comfortable situation."

Two years ago the council earmarked $3.5 million for the library, Christopher said, but the money was diverted for other city projects, including the new police building that opened six months ago.

"Little by little the money went toward other projects," Christopher said.

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