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135-year backlog? Sounds like a job for summer interns

'Priceless' is in the eye of the beholder as the Library of Congress catches up on indexing copyrighted items.

August 06, 2005|Dan Zak | Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Michael Jordan wasn't much of a basketball player when he was 13.

Well, he might've been, but certainly not in this 1977 footage of a junior high school game in Wilmington, N.C. It was shot on a camcorder from the bleachers of a gym, probably by another player's gung-ho parent. And His Airness is just another jerseyed youth popping air balls.

"He makes one shot out of five, so he wasn't that great," says intern Marlena Brown, scrutinizing a DVD of the transferred footage in an oak-paneled room at the Library of Congress.

Then there is Marilyn Monroe at a Los Angeles driving range in 1954, hacking at a golf ball with an iron. Then a grainy movie of her ceremonial appearance at Brooklyn's Ebbets Field for an all-star soccer match in 1957. After being escorted to the field by guards, Monroe primps, tugs at her tight pencil skirt and readies for the opening kick.

"She's wearing that skirt, so she can't move," says Lea Engle, a second intern. Indeed, the skirt chokes Monroe's follow-through, and the bombshell awkwardly punts the ball with the pointy toe of her high heel.

Footage of the athletic misadventures of Michael and Marilyn are the spoils of a summer of treasure hunting, of slogging through the dusty boxes of copyright deposits, of discovering things (yes!) that had already been discovered (oh, sigh).

Brown, a Pasadena native and recent Wellesley graduate, and Engle, a senior at the University of Maryland -- and 19 other Library of Congress summer interns -- have spent the last 10 weeks locating, identifying and indexing thousands of items that made it through the Copyright Office but were never fully processed, from personally annotated Noel Coward plays to a candid photo of William McKinley minutes before his assassination. They've researched, crosschecked, labeled, filed, sweated and sneezed.

Then, they picked the most compelling items and showed them off this week to the library staff, who circulated around the buffet of priceless goodies and curious junk. It was like a combination flea market and antique show, comprising 135 years of backlog, including:

* Humorous stereographs that depict the 1870s grasshopper plague in Nebraska.

* The text of a 1913 lecture by teacher Anne Sullivan titled "The Education of Helen Keller."

* A previously undocumented "playscript" of Charlie Chaplin's 1925 film "The Gold Rush."

* Footage of Fidel Castro in 1959, just before his rise to power.

* "There's No God in Old Bin Laden," a folksy album of patriotic songs copyrighted in 2002 by Eric Free and the Freedom Band.

These mint items, now logged and numbered, will broaden the library's collection of primary-source materials available for research. But with 31 million copyrights issued since the Library of Congress' inception in 1870, not all the discoveries were illustrious.

"I don't know if I should mention this," Brown says, lowering her voice, "but there were certain types of violent, sexual anime."

There was also "Six Easy Pieces for Piano." Personal photos of kittens. Fitness videos from the '80s. And other items people thought were worth the $30 fee to copyright. Like the home video of a pre-"American Idol" Clay Aiken singing at some wedding.

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