Inside ‘Book of Secrets’: Fact, Fiction and Mystery at LOC

Posted January 4, 2008 at 6:22pm

Historical accuracy isn’t exactly the mantra of “National Treasure: Book of Secrets,” the second installment in the popular Disney action-adventure franchise.

But with the Library of Congress featured as a key setting in the movie — which already has brought in more than $200 million at box offices worldwide — who cares if everything isn’t exactly true to life?

“Our mantra was, ‘it’s a movie,’” said Matt Raymond, director of communications for the LOC. “It’s a movie, so there obviously is going to be a lot of fiction, but what is interesting about the ‘National Treasure’ franchise is the way they use fact as a jumping-off point.”

The LOC gets about 10 minutes of screen time in the two-hour flick, which centers on a treasure-finding mission led by Benjamin Franklin Gates, played by Nicolas Cage.

While most of the stuff Gates and his colleagues do in the movie probably couldn’t actually happen (such as sneaking into both the queen’s suite at Buckingham Palace and the Oval Office without getting caught), a lot of the action at the Library actually isn’t all that half-baked.

“There is a level of authenticity,” Raymond said.

Before diving into what’s fact and what’s fiction in “Book of Secrets,” here’s what you need to know if you haven’t seen it. (Be warned, there are some spoilers — although nothing that gives away the movie’s ending.)

Gates is a treasure hunter famous for discovering a massive trove in the original film. In the sequel, Gates is out to learn the secret behind the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and thereby clear his family name, which had been tied to the plot.

Gates uses clues found in a recently discovered missing page of the diary of Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth to find the truth — his ancestor wasn’t helping Booth but rather seeking to prevent the Confederacy from finding the lost Native American city of gold, Cibola.

Therefore, Gates makes it his mission to find Cibola. But he needs information found in the Book of Secrets, a hidden tome containing information only available to the president that includes details about America’s secrets, including the lost city of gold.

And where’s the book kept? The Library of Congress, of course. So, Gates, his ex-girlfriend Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger) and buddy Riley Poole (Justin Bartha) head to the Library.

During the LOC’s 10 minutes of fame, there are plenty of breathtaking views of the Thomas Jefferson Building’s ornate interior, and nearly all of the shots are of the actual Library, including a stairwell scene involving a chase between the lead characters and police.

The only exception is Gates jumping off the roof of the Jefferson Building into a waiting vehicle, which then crashes through a security barrier to evade police, Raymond said.

That, for obvious reasons, couldn’t be shot on Capitol Hill.

Aside from pretty views, there also are many additional elements that move the treasure-hunting plot forward at the Library — some based in fact, others in fiction.

In the film, Chase is the LOC’s “director of document conservation,” so she has access to special spectral-imaging machines that analyze historical documents for faded and hidden writings and other marks. Toward the start of the movie, she uses the equipment to find a hidden cipher on the diary page.

“Book of Secrets” producers worked closely with Diane van der Reyden, the LOC’s director of preservation, to make sure they used the correct terms and techniques when using the equipment in the movie, giving the film more than just entertainment value.

And they got it right, Raymond said.

“It’s a fantastic opportunity to show some of the science and the fact behind the fiction,” Raymond said.

Other tidbits in the film aren’t so accurate, however. In the movie, the Book of Secrets is located under a special classification starting with “XY.” In reality, there is an “X” classification also considered a special category — they hold materials “predominantly of a pamphlet or ephemeral nature,” according to Raymond.

“It’s much less sexy,” he said.

One of the primary concerns Library officials had during filming in the spring of last year was the display of security measures used at the LOC, Raymond said.

It eventually became a balancing act, with LOC officials insisting some things be included. For example, at one point in the film, FBI agents rush into Library to find Gates, and make a lot of noise in the process.

“We intentionally wanted it so when the police rush in, they come through the magnetometers, and our security officials are there,” Raymond said.

But there are other things officials let the cast get away with that wouldn’t fly in real life.

One example: When searching for the Book of Secrets, Gates and his friends roam around the Library book stacks. But access to those books actually is extremely restricted and much is off-limits.

“That kind of thing would never happen,” Raymond said.

So Gates and his friends probably would have a harder time getting to the Book of Secrets in real life — if there is a book, that is.

“Maybe there is,” Raymond said. “If there was, I certainly wouldn’t know about it.”

Library officials are hoping that people who see “Book of Secrets” will come to the Library, and thus they are planning a special exhibit on the film at the LOC’s New Visitors Experience.

(The National Archives, which is featured predominately in the first film, saw more than a 20 percent increase in visitors after the movie’s release.)

Plenty of hidden treasures are uncovered at the Library all the time, Raymond noted. The Library got a great deal of attention in November when another Lincoln-tied artifact was uncovered: two photos many believe feature the president just before he delivered the Gettysburg Address.

“It just shows when you have 130 million items, you aren’t going to know every detail about every single one,” Raymond said. “The more people who put their eyes on them and study them, the better.”

Docents and volunteers also are expected to be prepped in upcoming weeks to answer questions visitors might have about the film, Raymond said.

“This gives us an opportunity to tell our stories,” Raymond said. “There are a lot of hidden treasures at the Library, and we are finding them every day. It’s very exciting.”

Emily Yehle contributed to this report.