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Persistence of Vision: Public Library 16mm Film Collections in America

From: The Moving Image
Volume 5, Number 1, Spring 2005
pp. 1-27 | 10.1353/mov.2005.0002

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The Moving Image 5.1 (2005) 1-27

Public Library 16mm Film Collections in America

Elena Rossi-Snook

Public library 16mm film collections in America are a valuable but endangered resource. Largely developed in the post–World War II years, public library collections were established for the enhancement of the community's education and entertainment, and the explication of current topics, politics, and trends. As a result, these collections are a unique mix of educational films, documentaries, animation, avant-garde films, student projects, and feature films that, today, evidence the social evolution of the twentieth century. However, while the composition of library film collections is historically significant, few public libraries are afforded the recognition and support given to archives. With the degradation of government funding for public libraries nationwide and the assumption that video and digital formats provide an adequate representation of film productions past and present, librarians have been pressured to discard their 16mm holdings. To support the protection of and improve access to the many films that public libraries own but are now considered "lost," one must consider the development and administration of public library 16mm film collections and how, with preservation, they can contribute to the study and advancement of American culture.

Public libraries in the United States date from colonial times, and the first free lending library collections can be traced back to the 1690s, when Rev. Dr. Thomas Bray established publicly accessible church libraries throughout the southern and northern colonies. Since then, public libraries have undergone systematic alterations to accommodate the social and cultural requirements of the American people. At the turn of the nineteenth century, the influx of immigrants to the United States, the growth of public education and increasing numbers attending high school and college, the popularity of children's literature, and the desire for recreation outside the industrial forty-eight-plus-hour work week were seen as fodder for the newly conceptualized "modern library idea." Librarians determined that the spirit of library service should surpass a merely literary function. In accordance, the public library of the 1900s furthered an ideology of "social obligation" and began providing a large range of services, striving to become "the nation's principal agency of enlightenment." The purpose of the public library, under its modern library idea, was to serve the greatest number of people in the most direct way possible and under the most comfortable circumstances.

In tandem with the proliferation of public libraries (in 1903 there were 2,283 public libraries with a thousand volumes or more, an increase of 1,312 from 1896), motion pictures were redefining both national leisure time and education. Theaters, churches, halls, and youth organizations exhibited a variety of product, including educational films supplied by the YMCA, the George Kleine Company, Pathé Frères, the Thomas A. Edison Company, and others. Public libraries quickly assessed the educational potential of incorporating visual media into their services and, with the introduction of the modern 16mm film gauge in 1923, began establishing collections of their own for circulation and in-house programming.

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Figure 1
Popular titles from New York State's Upper Hudson Library Federation and Ramapo-Catskill Library System. Photograph by Michael Diekmann.

Public librarians were intrigued by the potential for using film as a means of expanding patronage and more efficiently developing literacy. If not promoting their own services, libraries worked with local movie theaters to advertise the use of books in conjunction with screenings. Encouraged by the body of work being produced during the documentary movement of the 1930s, librarians began using films within their own buildings to accompany discussion groups, and by the 1940s, film programming within the public library was used to present information on contemporary public issues. From this auspicious combination—the reinvented public library credo, the advent of 16mm film, and the documentary genre—public libraries began building their own collections and using films in increasingly sophisticated programs. Unencumbered by the limitations of privatization, public librarians were free to acquire the films "that aren't easily available to the community," films they saw as informative, stimulating and appropriate for the library's communal environment. This initiative to collect films in accordance with...

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