Finding Historical Source Material on Motion Pictures

Library Guide

Part I: Locating Primary Sources

What is a primary resource?

In the humanities, a primary source is a document that was created during the time period being studied. This includes newspaper and magazine articles, original film reviews, pamphlets, interviews, government publications, manuscripts, diaries, newsreels, and other sources that speak to the context of the time period. Primary sources provide firsthand evidence of historical events recorded by those who lived it, and as such usually need to be contextualized with more modern secondary sources like histories of the time period and academic film writing.

You can usually find clues to specific primary sources by looking through secondary materials like books and scholarly articles written in the present day. These often include bibliographies of the primary works used as references, and can give you ideas about other ways to search for your topic. Some more recent books also include reprints of primary sources.

What do I need to know before starting research?

If you are studying a particular film, you should know (a) what year the film was released, and (b) the name of the director (if known). This is because much of the literature about film is arranged by these two categories. Sometimes films are released in other countries or even within the U.S. under another name, and many films were re-made in later years. Some very early films did not even have clear titles, and actors were not always credited. If you are working on a more general topic (like censorship, gender, screening facilities, or technology), it can still be useful to look up the names of films or people you think will be important examples.

Searching the Catalogs

Library Catalogs like Harvest (UC Davis holdings) and Melvyl ( (all UC libraries) will search for books, newspaper/magazine titles (to see if we have a subscription), and related materials held in the library. They do NOT search the contents of a newspaper, for which you need a Database.

In the Advanced search of the Harvest Catalog, you can limit your search to a date range. This works best if you are looking for books and manuscripts as primary sources written during a specific time period. After setting a date range, good subject words to try include: "cinematography," "motion pictures," and "films." However, the catalog is a much better place to search for secondary sources. Library databases and print indexes are usually the preferred places for locating primary sources, simply because they contain a record of many individual newspaper and magazine articles.

Other libraries' materials on the web:
  • For primary documents on cinema held at Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive, search their CineFiles database. The database has full citation information, and in cases where copyright allows there are full image scans:
  • For searching and browsing some of the Library of Congress historical collections online, visit the American Memory website:

Databases for finding historical reviews and articles in periodicals.

Most information on film and television written by the popular press appears in newspapers, magazines, or film trade publications. "Academic" film criticism in the United States wasn't produced much outside of avant-garde circles until later in the 20th century. Your primary source can be supplemented by historical information about cultural themes and events that can help you develop a thesis.

Databases index the content of periodicals, but the content may or may NOT be online. The Library subscribes to a few major databases that will allow you to find materials written during the time period of your film.

They are listed on the "Databases A-Z" list off of the library home page, and many are on the Film & Media Studies Subject Guide under "Full Text Resources."

Recomended Databases for Historical Articles:
Proquest Historical Newspapers
Historical coverage of the New York Times 1851-2003, Los Angeles Times, 1881-1985, and the Wall Street Journal 1889-1989 with both full page and individual article images. Searchable full text back to the first issue. The collection includes digital reproductions providing access to every page from every available issue. Use date limits to prevent too many hits.
American Periodicals Series Online
Searchable database of citations and digitized images of the pages of more than 1100 American magazines and journals published from colonial days to the dawn of the 20th century. Though the database states that it only goes to 1900, there are many articles available past that year.
Times of London Digital Archive
Search the full text of two hundred years of the Times of London, 1785-1985 (excluding Sundays).
Black Studies Center
Contains the full text of the important black newspaper, The Chicago Defender (1910-1975).
Readers' Guide Retrospective
An electronic version of the classic Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature (print index available in Humanities, Social Sciences and Government Information Services Reference). Contains comprehensive indexing of the most popular general-interest periodicals published in the United States and reflects the history of 20th century America. Articles are usually NOT full text online. You will often need to get the call number for a periodical from the Library Catalog (either Harvest or Melvyl ( ), and then find it on the library shelf. When you see the UC-elinks
			Orange Button button on a list of search results, you can click on it to go automatically to the catalog.
More information on UC-elinks.
Periodicals Index Online
This database indexes over 200 years of articles published in more than 4000 periodicals in the humanities and social sciences. It provides access to the digitized images of more than 200 complete journal backfiles from national and international journals, some back to 1770.
Film Index International
Provides indexing of 115,000 films and biographical information for almost 57,000 personalities. FII also includes brief bibliographies and coverage of international film awards, as well as searchable plot summaries and full cast and crew lists. To find primary sources with this database, look at the bibliography for an entry, which lists articles from different years. You can then search for these sources in Harvest or Melvyl ( .
Tips for Searching in the Historical Databases

In the historical newspapers, it is very important to remember that you are searching the actual language used by reporters from the time period—NOT necessarily the language we would use in the present day. This means that wording now considered outdated or even deeply offensive was being used to describe different ethnicities, nationalities, and women. Also, the vocabulary surrounding film viewing and production was not standardized by any means, so you must try several different word searches to locate useful articles.

Some ideas:

  • Instead of just "film" or "movies," try "moving pictures," "motion pictures," "talkies," and specific types of technology like "kinetoscope"
  • Instead of "gender," try "women" or even "ladies." Women are also often discussed or implied in the contexts of children and morality/moral standards.
  • Instead of "Asian Americans," try "Orientals," "Chinese" or "Chinamen," "Japs or Japanese," etc.
  • Instead of "Blacks" or "African Americans," try "Negroes" or "Negro." This was by far the most common term used to describe people of African descent until the early 1960s.

In magazine indexes like Readers' Guide Retrospective, you are simply searching the title, author, and broad subject headings of individual articles. Therefore, the searches you perform should always include a date range and be very broad (For example, "motion pictures," "motion picture industry," "Birth of a Nation," etc.)

Browsing Microfilm Collections

Not all articles are online, especially those in magazines. Using databases like Readers' Guide Retrospective will help you search the individual contents of magazines, but there is also value in browsing certain major publications to get a feel for general themes and cultural trends, as well as advertising and the representation of specific social groups. Some older periodicals are available on the shelves, while others must be browsed using microfilm readers. If you've never used microfilm before, reading the library's information page on this format can be useful.

Here are some examples of the magazines and newspapers you can browse. While some print and online resources give you a sense of what is in these publications, a great number of them (especially the newspapers) have never been digitized or even indexed for the early years of their publication. This means that in some cases, you will simply have to browse them to discover useful content.

Close-Up (film magazine from 1927-1933; all issues on microfilm)
Shields Library Microfilm Room (Lower Level), PN1993.C55 MF
Variety. (1905-present)
Shields Library Microfilm Room (Lower Level), PN2000 V3 MF
Index to Motion Pictures Reviewed by Variety, 1907-1980.
HSSGIS Reference PN1995.A39 1982.
The New York Clipper
The Clipper was one of the oldest theatrical & amusement papers in the United States. (1853-1924)
Shields Library Microfilm Room (Lower Level): PN2000 .N55 MF
Chicago Tribune
Shields Library Microfilm Room (Lower Level): April 23, 1849-Dec. 31, 1996
Davis Enterprise
Shields Library Microfilm Room (Lower Level): Jan. 1, 1898-1963
Pittsburgh Courier
Shields Library Microfilm Room (Lower Level): Jan. 13, 1923-2002
Sacramento Bee
Shields Library Microfilm Room (Lower Level): Feb. 3, 1857- present
San Francisco Chronicle
Shields Library Microfilm Room (Lower Level): Jan. 16, 1865-present
San Francisco Newspapers Index, 1904-1959.
Shields Library Microfilm Room, AI21 S25 B4 1986 mf11
Washington Post
Shields Library Microfilm Room (Lower Level): July 1904-present
Winters Express
Microfilm: Jan. 1887-Dec. 1944
California Information File, 1846-1985.
A microfiche copy of a card file in the California State Library, this set indexes the Sacramento Bee and Sacramento Union, and San Francisco Chronicle, as well as other historical newspapers.
Shields Library Microfilm Room (Lower Level): F861 C34 1986 mfll

What about finding additional primary articles/reviews/information?

Not everything is necessarily available full text or even referenced online. The Humanities, Social Sciences and Government Information Services Reference collection has many indexes and paper reprints of reviews also available on the 2nd floor of Shields Library. Other more specific resources are located in the regular book stacks. These can be extremely helpful in locating articles on older film and difficult topics.

History of the American Cinema.
This multi-volume history covers many aspects of cinema (volume 1 starts with 1907), with quotes from early articles. The notes and bibliography pages in the back are a good source of primary and secondary readings.
HSSGIS Reference PN1993.5.U6 1990
Selected Film Criticism.
Reprints of movie magazine reviews from 1896-1960. This is a huge timesaver if the film for which you are looking is included, since most of the original articles can be very hard to track down.
HSSGIS Reference PN1995.S426 1982
The Film Index.
This three-volume set indexes early articles and book chapters about film according to general subject categories. Use the index in the back of each volume to find a specific name or title. The volumes are divided into three categories: Film as Art, Film as Industry, and Film in Society. Even includes some excerpts from reviews.
HSSGIS Reference PN1998.W7.
Cinema Year by Year: 1894-2004.
A chronology of major news stories, films, and events documenting the history of cinema, arranged by year.
HSSGIS Reference PN1993.5.A1 C573 2004
Encyclopedia of Early Cinema.
HSSGIS Reference PN1993.45.E53 2005
Within our Gates: Ethnicity in American Feature Films, 1911-1960 (AFI Catalog).
This useful descriptive catalog of American films describes the plots and charts the history of production/reception of early films through the lens of race and ethnicity. Also includes bibliography of primary texts used for the essay.
HSSGIS Reference PN1995.0 M56 W58 1997.
American Film Institute Catalog.
Similar to the more specialized Within Our Gates publication above, but more general and coverage of 1911-1970 for all American films.
HSSGIS Reference PN1998.A53
New Film Index: A Bibliography of Magazine Articles in English, 1930-1970.
Indexes magazine articles on film; this source works best as an overview of broad film topics, rather than as an index for individual films.
HSSGIS Reference Z5784M9M29 1975.
Film Review Index.
Indexes reviews written from 1882-1985. Look up the publications in the library catalog.
HSSGIS Reference PN1995.F525 1986
A History of Pre-Cinema.
Three-volume set of reprinted primary source articles on the very early history of cinema technology.
Shields Library (3rd floor), TR848.H57 2000.
Pre-Cinema History: An Encyclopaedia and Annotated Bibliography of the Cinema Before 1896
HSSGIS Reference TR848.H38 1993
New York Times Film Reviews.
Reprints of film reviews published arranged chronologically from 1882-1985 in the New York Times. See also the Proquest Historical Newspapers database for these reviews online.
HSSGIS Reference PN1995.N4
New York Times Encyclopedia of Film, 1896-1979.
Reprints articles about films, actors, directors, etc., to supplement reviews. Use the last volume (index) to find the date of publication. See also the Proquest Historical Newspapers database for online coverage.
HSSGIS Reference PN1993.45 N4 1984.
Who's Who of Victorian Cinema.
HSSGIS Reference TR849.A1W46 1996
This Film is Dangerous: A Celebration of Nitrate Film.
Shields Library (3rd floor), TR886.3.T48 2002
The Griffith Project.
This ongoing multi-volume project seeks to document the specific details of all D.W. Griffith's films. Currently covers 1907-1915.
Shields Library (4th floor), PN1998.3.G74 G77 1999
Edison Motion Pictures, 1890-1900: An Annotated Filmography.
This filmography has descriptions and brief annotations for Edison's early films. See also the useful introductory essay.
HSSGIS Reference PN1999.T47M87 1997
History of the Cinema 1895-1940 (microfiche guide).
This guide describes a collection of books and pamphlets published between 1895-1940 (on microfiche) ranging in subject from contemporary studies in the sociology of the cinema to Hollywood novels, from biographies of stars to how-to books on screenwriting. The collection was acquired as part of a UC shared purchase program and resides at UC Irvine. Materials from the collection may be requested via interlibrary loan.
HSSGIS Reference PN1993.5.A1 H57 1989.
The New Historical Dictionary of the American Film Industry.
This dictionary has short entries and bibliographies for a range of historical film topics, including histories of different movie studios and technologies.
HSSGIS Reference PN1993.5.U6 S539 1998
Film and propaganda in America: A Documentary History.
Contains numerous collected government memos and publications from WWI-Post WWII.
Shields Library (4th floor), PN1993.5.U6 F47 1990.
See also:

Reprints of historical reviews from famous critics, and foundational essays on film criticism (use Harvest library catalog to see if these are checked out)

American Movie Critics: An Anthology from the Silents Until Now
Shields Library PN1995 .A448 2006
Bazin at Work
Shields Library PN1995.B324 1997
Lorenz on Film: Movies, 1927-1941
Shields Library PN1995.L63 1986
Brecht on Film and Radio
Shields Library PT2603.R397 Z523 2000
Carl Sandburg at the Movies: A Poet in the Silent Era 1920-1927
Shields Library PN1995.S33 1985
Graham Green Film Reader: Mornings in the Dark
Shields Library PN1995.G68 1993
Grierson on the Movies
Shields Library PN1995.G687 1981
Film Essays and Criticism (Rudolf Arnheim)
Shields Library PN1994.A70113 1997
Saint Cinema: Selected Writings 1929-1970
Shields Library PN1994.W39
The Origins of American Film Criticism 1909-1939
Shields Library PN1995.L65 1973

How can I find more contextual information about the time in which my film was made?

While finding information about individual films, directors, etc. is important, you may also want to find out what was happening culturally in a broader way. You can then search the electronic databases for articles on events/people you identify as important.

American Decades
Surveys important events, trends, etc. by decade. Available for 1900-1989.
HSSGIS Reference E169.12.A419 1994.
The Greenwood Guide to American Popular Culture
Four volume introduction and bibliography to different popular culture topics.
HSSGIS Reference E169.1.H2643 2002
American Popular Culture through History series
  • The 1900s: HSSGIS Reference E169.1.B248 2002
  • The 1910s: Shields Library E169.1.B598 2002
  • The 1920s: HSSGIS Reference E169.1.D796 2004
  • The 1930s: Shields Library E169.1.Y59 2002
Facts on File
Covers 1941-present. This source reprints and summarizes major news stories and details from the press for each year. Use the index at the back of each volume to look up specific topics, or browse by date. Contains some top box office info, reviews, etc.
HSSGIS Reference D410.F2
Encyclopedia of American Social History
HSSGIS Reference HN57.E58 1993.
Chronology of World History, v.4 (1901-1998)
HSSGIS Reference D11.M39 1999
The American Years: A Chronology of American History
HSSGIS Reference E174.5.G753 1999
Worldwide Box Office (historical stats on domestic/overseas gross)
This website allows you to sort by year for 1899-present, but older films do not have much data and less popular films may not be listed at all.

Part II: Locating Secondary Resources

Finding Books:

Use the library catalogs (Harvest for UCD only, or Melvyl ( for all the UC libraries) to find books, or to see if we have a subscription to a journal or magazine. The catalog will not search the titles or contents of articles—to do this, use an Electronic Database. When searching a library catalog, you may do a general keyword search (directors' names, titles of films, general subjects, etc.), but you may also do a Subject Word(s) search using Library of Congress (LC) terms applied by catalogers. The terms are listed in the red LC headings books located near the reference desk on the 2nd floor of the library. Most books have at least one subject term applied to them.

Hints: Library catalogs often use the term "motion pictures" instead of "movies" or "films," unless they are describing a film genre or type. The term "cinematography" is also often broadly applied to many broad technical aspects of film.

Some sample subject headings to try:
  • Silent Films history and criticism
  • Motion pictures history
  • Motion pictures history and criticism
  • Motion picture audiences
  • Motion pictures censorship
  • Motion pictures industry
  • Sound motion pictures
  • Motion pictures aesthetics
  • Motion pictures social aspects United States
  • Motion picture actors and actresses
  • Motion pictures political aspects
  • Motion pictures philosophy
  • Violence in motion pictures
  • Motion pictures editing
  • Motion pictures and music
  • Film genres
  • Western films
  • Cinematography
  • African Americans in motion pictures
  • Asian Americans in motion pictures

Journal/Magazine Articles: Finding Recent History & Criticism

To find list of UC Davis Article Databases:
For full text scholarly criticism online, try these databases:
  • JSTOR (completely full text online, back issues of scholarly journals)
  • Project Muse (completely full text online, recent issues of journals)
  • IIPA Full Text: International Index to the Performing Arts (selected full text)
  • Expanded Academic ASAP (selected full text; pre-limit to "peer reviewed publications" for scholarly articles)
  • Art Full Text (selected full text)
  • Periodicals Index Online (selected full text, back issues of both journals and magazines)
  • Duke University Press Journals Online (full text of recent issues)
For citations of articles online (use UC-elinks to locate item):
  • FIAF International Filmarchive Database (indexes contents of core film journals and magazines)
  • Film Literature Index
  • MLA International Bibliography (MLAIB has a pre-limit to peer reviewed journals, and film studies scholarship that has appeared in literary journals)
  • America: History and Life
  1. Not all articles are available online, so it's wise not to completely limit yourself to only electronically available materials. This is because some very important film studies journals are still only available in print on the library shelves. If an article is not full text in a database, use the UC eLinks button button to see if the library has a subscription to the journal you need. You may also issue an interlibrary loan request from other UC institutions.
  2. There is a difference between scholarly (peer reviewed) criticism and a review of a film. One way to tell the difference is that scholarly criticism usually has a bibliography at the end, and the author has an affiliation with a college or university. Reviews are more likely to occur in newspapers and popular magazines, though some scholarly journals will also publish reviews (in addition to criticism). For more on the difference between criticism and reviews, see UC Berkeley's page on the topic

For More Assistance

  • Visit a reference desk (hours)
  • Contact Juri Stratford, Film Studies Librarian (, (530) 752‑9783) for an appointment.