The term "Silent Film" describes the period of early cinema that lasted from its very beginnings in the late 1800s to the early 1930s. Due to technological issues, these films were released without sound and so a visual language and style of presentation developed that is still the basic grammar of movies today. With silent films, viewers are an active part of the filmmaking process as they have to interpret the visual storytelling and read the gestures of the performers. (Of course, silent films were rarely actually silent, as there was nearly always sound in the form of live accompaniment in the theater itself.) This visual storytelling, with intertitles that could be translated into any language, makes silent pictures the closest thing to a universal language.
The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center has rich and deep collections from this period of movie history. Researchers can find copies of many silent films (on 16mm film, VHS, DVD, and Blu-Ray formats), as well as Special Collections of photographs, personal papers and corporate records, clippings, original screenplays, rare books, lobby cards, posters, souvenir programs, pressbooks, trade magazines, technical handbooks, and other advertising materials that cover and inform all aspects of Silent Film history. The majority of these materials focus on productions released in the United States, but the library does hold important films and documents related to European and Asian silent films as well. Almost all our films can be checked out, while paper-based materials held in the research divisions must be used onsite. Additionally, the NYPL holds books, articles, and documentary films by silent film historians, as well as biographies and memoirs that can be discovered in our catalogs and online databases.
We warmly welcome researchers interested in our Silent Film era collections. Our reference staff is available in person at the 3rd floor Theatre, Film and Dance Reference desk during all our open hours.
Silent film materials are primarily held in the following collections at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts:
Reserve Film and Video Collection: firstname.lastname@example.org
Billy Rose Theatre Division: email@example.com or book a virtual consultation appointment
Additional materials may be found in these collections:
Music and Recorded Sound Division, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
Jerome Robbins Dance Division, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
Manuscripts and Archives Division, Stephen A. Schwartzman Building
Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
Photographs and Prints Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
NYPL Circulating Collections Catalog
NYPL Research Collections Catalog
Billy Rose Theatre Division's Onsite Card Catalog
Special thanks to my colleagues in the Billy Rose Theatre Division: to Steve Massa for sharing his vast knowledge of silent film history and to Elena Rossi-Snook for sharing her deep expertise in the Reserve Film and Video Collection and filmmaking, and to them both for shaping the opening narrative with me; and to Doug Reside for his technical assistance and enthusiastic support for this project.
Photograph of unidentified early film sequence, 1895. *T-Pho A (Cinema--Beginnings). Billy Rose Theatre Division. New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Digital Collections ID: TH-02585