I’ve seen a lot of public libraries in my day, but I can’t recall a single one that lays claim to influencing 30 years of American pop culture.
Then again, I haven’t lived in Burbank that long. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that one local librarian single-handedly saved a scene in “The Rock,” or that the Aztecs in an old Ford truck commercial had properly knotted loincloths thanks to the Burbank Library.
From the mid 1970s until the late 1990s or early 2000s (depending on who you talk to), the Warner Bros. archive — all 125 filing cabinets of it — was housed at the library. For $60 to $70 an hour, library employees would find you any minute detail of any time period in human history. That seems like a tall statement, but the aforementioned loincloth proved me otherwise.
The collection is a mishmash of books, magazines, newspapers, clippings and other materials that reflect major time periods, cultures and social mores. If you needed to know how butlers and maids did their jobs in the 1920s, the librarians in Burbank could provide quite the education.
Or, if you’re the producers of “The Rock,” which starred Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage, you might call upon the Burbank Library to research some Serbian graffiti. That particular request proved a little too tough for the archive, but luckily, librarian Misha Schutt was on call that day.
Schutt, a Russian major in college, has worked as a librarian for the American Film Institute as well as the city library. The producers of “The Rock” came to him when they couldn’t find a translation for a specific message from the terrorists in the movie. Schutt offered to write something for them, as he says that once you know Russian, “the other Slavic languages hold no terrors.” And toward the beginning of the movie, written on a package from a terrorist is the phrase, “Freedom or Death,” in the correct Slavic script.
“That feels good, to see what you did end up in a movie,” Schutt said.
He works in a tiny corner of the library’s upper floor, surrounded by uneven piles of texts that threaten to topple at the slightest breeze. A self-described packrat, Schutt can point to any one of the piles and know which books are contained there. Down a short hallway is a storage room now filled with scattered boxes of Brooke Burke and Roseanne Barr biographies, but at one time, Schutt and other librarians would visit this area to pore through decades-worth of archives.
The room is not climate-controlled, which partially fueled the city’s decision in the late 1990s to return the collection to Warner Bros. It was also expensive to maintain, according to library director Sharon Cohen. In the decade since it took the collection back, Warner Bros. has combined it with those from Hanna-Barbera and MGM, and you can still schedule an appointment to use it at www.wbsf.com.
In a pre-Google age, the Burbank Library was the place to get two types of answers to your question: the right one, and the one you want. In Hollywood, Schutt says, it’s more often the latter.
But in 1997, “the year of the volcanoes” — when studios released both “Dante’s Peak” and “Volcano” — Schutt said the representations of lava flows were largely accurate, based on his research.
I’ve visited the Burbank Library at different times on different days, and it seems to always draw a crowd. Other libraries have to compete with Barnes & Noble and Google to stay relevant in their communities. Not in Burbank. Here, the library is equal parts community center and community treasure — one worth its weight in Hollywood history.
BRYAN MAHONEY is a recent transplant to Burbank. When he’s not entering search terms into Wikipedia, he can be reached at 818NewGuy@gmail.com or on Twitter @818NewGuy.