Samantha Blanco: Our Movies, Ourselves

Alhambra reference librarian publishes InterActions article on the social and emotional affect of movie fan archives.

When Samantha Blanco (’18, MLIS) took a course on “Archives and Art-Making Class,” taught by Kathy Carbone in the fall of 2017, she drew upon her lifelong love of the horror film genre to fulfill an assignment. Upon viewing a Lon Chaney fan’s collection of ephemera and scrapbooks that is preserved in the UCLA Library’s Special Collections, she re-created the makeup kit used by the actor and pioneer of special effects makeup who was known as “The Man of a Thousand Faces,” and a mobile of photographs depicting some of Chaney’s most famous roles. 

Blanco’s article on this transformative experience, titled, “Representation, Affect, and the Archives: A Shrine to Lon Chaney,” has been published in the recent issue of InterActions, a student-led journal of UCLA’s Graduate School of Education & Information Studies.

Blanco – whose favorite Chaney film is the 1923 version of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” says that discovering materials on the actor compiled by A. Y. Owen, a photojournalist who had been a Chaney fan since age nine, was “a very emotional experience.”

“It just felt like I had a really deep connection,” Blanco says. “[Chaney] was such an interesting and deep person. I didn’t expect to find that deepness, at least, from what the material presented.  It didn’t hit me until I started reading all those things about his death. There was article after article about his movies. And then, [the collection] turns into so many pages of Hollywood literally mourning this person and acknowledging that nobody could ever fill his spot.”

Blanco notes the humanity and understanding with which Chaney portrayed disfigured antiheroes such as in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “West of Zanzibar,” and “The Penalty,” as well as those characters whose flaws were not visible.

MLIS alumna Samantha Blanco is now a reference librarian at the Alhambra Civic Center Library. Courtesy of Samantha Blanco

“Both of [Chaney’s] parents were deaf, but he and his two other siblings were hearing,” Blanco says. “He had to help look after his mother… and grew up in difficult circumstances. He had a lot of empathy from his experiences, which started to become apparent in some of his other movies that I started watching as well – he brought this depth to them.”

Blanco, a twice-minted Bruin who earned her bachelor’s degree in 2012  in Anthropology and a double minor in Gender Studies and Labor and Workplace Studies, says that movies are “… a way of understanding ourselves and the world we live in.”

“The [ancient] Romans would have stories of the gods and myths that explained the world,” says Blanco. “We [no longer] have the storytelling that we had as hunter/gatherers. Movies have really replaced these kinds of stories about ourselves, and seeing it that way makes me think of how important it is to have fair and equitable representation of [all] people.”

Blanco’s InterActions article examines what she terms the “affective engagement” that can be gained by viewers who learn about a famous individual through the collection of an admirer, and how power is manifested by what is archived and by whom. 

“Information holds so much power, and that is the most important thing I’ve learned about archives through UCLA IS,” says Blanco. “A big part of the project for me was understanding how power works in the archive, and some of those things can be transferred to public or academic libraries. 

“The archival training I received at UCLA is invaluable – the way you [can] think about records as these living documents that have these connections to people across time and space, and to challenge the idea of power that is infused in these records.” 

Blanco, who cites Michelle Caswell’s teachings on “symbolic annihilation” of marginalized groups in archival practices in the article, says that “addressing the whole person within records” would be an ideal for archival practices to deal with less palatable histories.

“Sometimes, you don’t even know what could be upsetting to somebody,” notes Blanco. “You could be doing simple record searching, looking through materials, and they learn that they are adopted, or that somebody committed a murder in their family. I’m dealing with … what can we do to acknowledge and address affect, especially when you work with records that cause secondary trauma, that deal with slavery or genocide and other difficult issues.”

“Some of the coolest things I ever learned were when I was a graduate research assistant at the Charles E. Young Research Library, helping students, but also faculty and the public – people who were doing research projects or writers – and learning with them [about] what their subject was. But also, whenever I was curious about something, I would hop onto the databases and I would just teach myself. It was so illuminating.”

To read Blanco’s article, “Representation, Affect, and the Archives: A Shrine to Lon Chaney” in the current issue of InterActions, visit this link.

Above: Samantha Blanco (’18, MLIS; ’12, B.A., Anthropology/Gender and Labor and Workplace Studies) shared her research on a fan archive of 20th Century film actor Lon Chaney at UCLA IS’s Kenneth Karmiole Symposium in 2018.