In Los Angeles, anyone can be a star—even a library collection. The story of Lost LA, which draws on a Los Angeles library consortium’s local collections, proves that with the right tools (and a willingness to collaborate), libraries can reach an even wider audience.
Lost LA wasn’t always a star. A few years ago, it was merely an attempt by Nathan Masters, manager of academic events and programming at the University of Southern California (USC) Libraries, to bring more attention to the university’s collections. A few years ago KCET, a local public television station that had recently broken with PBS, approached USC with a unique question. Would the university be willing to provide the station regular editorial content about Los Angeles history?
For Masters, whose job is to help his institution demonstrate its public value, the answer was an unequivocal “yes.” He started a blog for KCET called LA as Subject. It took its name from the unique research alliance hosted by USC, which brings together over 230 separate collections that cover all aspects of Los Angeles’s storied (and disparate) history. LA as Subject the consortium advocates for all member institutions. LA as Subject the blog took that concept one step further by tying together the holdings of multiple collections into a compelling narrative.
The blog was so successful that it has now spun off into a TV show. Lost LA debuted with an inaugural three-episode series. Each episode explored a different aspect of Los Angeles’s past, from the demise of Southern California’s grizzly bears to the city’s lost tunnels and hills.
A show that highlights the city’s archival treasures on television is unique enough, but Lost LA took that mandate to another level. Each episode used three short documentary films commissioned by different filmmakers in wildly differing visual and narrative styles. The result, says Masters, was astonishing. “In one episode we had two different filmmakers who basically tackled the same subject material,” he says, citing Lost LA’s episode on the history of the land where Dodger Stadium now lies. “Their films were completely different because they came from different places.” The filmmakers also tackled materials challenges, coming up with new cinematic techniques to bring documents that weren’t exactly camera-ready, like handwritten manuscripts, to the screen. The filmmakers also tackled materials challenges, coming up with compelling ways to bring documents that weren’t exactly camera-ready, like handwritten manuscripts, to the screen. For example, filmmaker Laura Purdy incorporated handwritten, first-person accounts of bear encounters into her narrative by layering their content over 3-D artifacts of bears themselves while a narrator read the passages out loud.
KCET selected subjects based on the blog posts that performed best. “We looked at the most popular articles, the ones people really resonated with,” Masters explains. “Going forward, we won’t consult metrics like we did with the first season, but we have a few new concepts we’d like to try.”
Making archives into TV isn’t a simple process. Masters estimates that the production team involved more than 100 people, in part because of a production model that relied on multiple small films. Each episode entailed a huge effort—one that Masters says has paid off. “Now more than ever, we’re getting research inquiries from scholars, journalists, and professionals in architecture and urban planning who heard about us through Lost LA or the web series that we had before that,” he says.
Masters also writes about Los Angeles for media outlets like Gizmodo. “People at academic research libraries who want to raise public awareness of their collections don’t necessarily need to make a television show—that’s a big commitment,” he laughs. “But there are smaller, more achievable ways to do that. I encourage people to explore ideas like partnering with their local public television station. You never know what will come out of it.”
Check out a sample reel below: