September 24, 2017

A Closeup Look at Free for All: Inside the Public Library

free4all-log-72When documentary filmmakers Lucie Faulknor and Dawn Logsdon were evacuated to Baton Rouge, LA, from their home in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, they were struck by the essential role played by the public library in the days following the disaster. Staff worked long hours to help people locate missing family members, friends, and pets; fill out FEMA forms; communicate with insurance companies; and use the library computers. “They had an assembly line to give everybody a library card,” Faulknor said, “and we realized that librarians were also first responders.”

That recognition, along with many hours spent in libraries researching past projects, eventually convinced Faulknor and Logsdon that the world needed a documentary focused on the importance of America’s public libraries. Free for All: Inside the Public Library, which will be released in 2016, seeks to showcase the vitality of libraries large and small, urban and rural, successful and struggling, and the very personal stories of their patrons.

The evolution of the project dates back to their previous documentary film, Faubourg Treme: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans. While researching it, Faulknor and Logsdon spent a great deal of time in the Louisiana Historical Archives at the New Orleans Public Library, and became fascinated by the cross-section of people who passed through on a daily basis. “At some point,” Faulknor told LJ, “I don’t remember how exactly it came up, Lucie turned to me and said, ‘You know, this would make a great movie.’”

Faulknor replied that she was sure somebody else had done it and they had just never seen it. “How can this story not have been told in a documentary form before?” they wondered, Logsdon told LJ. “It’s screaming out to be told. It’s one of the great American stories, to me. Ken Burns did ten hours on baseball and jazz—the public library system certainly deserves a major broadcast documentary.” They discovered that smaller documentary projects about specific libraries or library subjects had been made, but nothing about the nation’s public library system.

View the Kickstarter trailer:

TAKING SHAPE

Free for All received its first development grant from Cal Humanities in 2012, and the project began to come together. Faulknor and Logsdon initially planned to pick one library system to represent the whole, and focus on its interplay in the community. They had, by then, moved to San Francisco and decided to focus on the San Francisco Public Library (SFPL), but their approach changed as they learned more about libraries.

“At some point we started to understand if we wanted to tell the story of the American public library we needed to show a broader range of what libraries meant to their own communities,” Logsdon explained. “Because even though it’s a national institution, it’s also a very profoundly local institution.” After presenting some clips from the film at the 2013 American Library Association Conference in Chicago, Faulknor and Logsdon surveyed the audience to ask what they thought was missing, and the response was clear: People agreed that SFPL was a great story, but it alone didn’t represent the rest of the country.

Faulknor and Logsdon decided the only way to capture that diversity would be to travel around the United States visiting different types of libraries: small town, rural, and various cities. They began interviewing library patrons, and realized that there was a second platform to the project: a series of personal narratives that will eventually be hosted on a dedicated interactive website. “When we tell people we’re doing a documentary about libraries,” said Faulknor, “the first thing they want to do is tell us their own library story.”

They set up a storytelling booth at SFPL where patrons could record their own narratives, and it proved to be hugely popular. People told of how their local libraries helped them assimilate as immigrants and become citizens, or understand their sexuality, or just get away from their families. “When we did the booth, I think five people burst into tears as they told us their library stories,” Logsdon told LJ. Some were traumatic—tales of researching abuse, or discovering that a father had been in the Ku Klux Klan—but some, said Logsdon, were just about love, like one woman’s description of growing up in suburban Illinois and walking to the library with her mother every week, filling up her little red wagon with books.

“It made us realize the depth of passion that individual Americans have for the institution,” said Logsdon, “and it kind of took me aback because I don’t think people feel that way about other public institutions.”

The two plan to take the storytelling booth on the road, although how it evolves will depend on funding. One possibility would involve an elaborate traveling mobile setup, but in its simplest form the “booth” could be a toolkit, easily set up with a camcorder in a library media lab or Maker space. Faulknor and Logsdon have applied for NEA funding to develop a prototype, and hope to eventually amass an archive that would combine contemporary and historical library stories.

“If I have a trademark in terms of what I’m drawn to for documentary storytelling,” said Logsdon, “it’s bringing history and contemporary stories together to illustrate each other, for the history to inform what’s going on today and for what’s going on today to be enriched by what happened in the past.… A lot of the library world doesn’t even know [its] own history.” The filmmakers are particularly excited about the idea of working with teen media labs to produce and upload their own content for the site.

RESONATING FOR EVERYBODY

Faulknor and Logsdon have received funding awards from such organizations as the National Endowment for the Humanities, Cal Humanities, the San Francisco Foundation, the Creative Work Fund, and the Eastman Fund. They also launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise the money they would need to travel with a cinematographer, sound person, and equipment in order to continue gathering interviews. The campaign surpassed its goal of $75,000 in October 2014.

While the Kickstarter campaign was just one prong of their fundraising strategy—it “allows us to keep the lights on,” said Faulknor—it has also been a great audience-building tool, with built-in marketing and PR via social media. They continue to take contributions on the project’s website.

Free for All’s filmmaking team, many of whom Faulknor and Logsdon have worked with on previous films, includes noted documentarian Stanley Nelson serving as executive producer. Library historian Wayne Wiegand, whose forthcoming book A Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library will be published by Oxford University Press in 2015, is their historical research director.

Faulknor and Logsdon hope to premier the film at a major film festival, do the film circuit, and then move on to public television. Ultimately, of course, they want to show it in libraries (they have also received strong interest from library schools).

In addition, they are working to set up an advisory board of library leaders in order to ensure the broadest possible perspective. The fact that support for libraries has always crossed political lines and boundaries is significant, they emphasized, especially given the country’s current political climate.

“What drew us to this story is the way it resonates for everybody,” Logsdon told LJ. “Ronald Reagan talks about how he would have never become president if it hadn’t been for the public library.… The Occupy kids all set up model libraries in their Occupy camps on the far left extreme, and on the right we’re learning more and more about how many Christian right families rely on libraries to homeschool their kids…they feel safe and that the library experience speaks to them and their families.” She recalled visiting a painting class for seniors at a library in a conservative part of Louisiana, where one woman stepped up and told her, “If the government tries to mess with our library, they’re going to have a riot on their hands.”

“What would our country look like without its libraries?” asks the Free for All website, “What would be lost?” In addition to collecting enthusiastic stories, the team will be traveling to places where libraries are threatened or have closed branches, such as Detroit and Stockton, CA. “The way we’re going to address that question,” said Logsdon, “is by showing how integral they are to a functioning democracy right now.”

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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Comments

  1. cynthia dunkin says:

    Too Bad that Louisiana Libraries did not receive credit/praise for their help with tornado victims.

  2. MaryEllin santiago says:

    What a wonderful story..as a librarian who had the privilege to work with libraries impacted by the Hurricanes of 2005 I am thrilled to see this come to the attention of others. Public libraries are the cornerstone of every community and the thousands of librarians who have dedicated their careers to helping everyone find what they need will be in the spotlight- long overdue.:)
    But let us also pay close attention to the group of government leaders who understand the value of the library in their community…in today’s world that is getting smaller. Please be sure to have a showing of the documentary at the ICMA meeting ( International City/County Management Assoc.) this group needs to understand the power of a great library. Ongoing funding and support along with great leaders create a super community library.

  3. David Biviano says:

    Be sure to include Seattle, which of course you must know, has strong citizen levy support for central and neighborhood libraries, and have built many in the past decade.

  4. For those who’d like a preview, Dawn Logsdon and Free for All will be featured at the Video Round Table Gala in San Francisco at ALA 2015. Also speaking will be archivist, writer and filmmaker Rick Prelinger. Advance tickets are available with ALA conference registration; tickets will also be available at the door. See the VRT website for more info: http://www.ala.org/vrt/.