No one argues that essential titles from the history of literature should be in a library collection, even if they rarely circulate. Plutarch, for example: his writings aren’t exactly high circ but most public libraries have him in their collections, and just about everyone agrees that he should be there. Some titles are necessary in order to say you boast a complete and worthy collection. Literacy is more than simply teaching people to read—it’s also about teaching them to read well and widely. Complete and worthy collections are essential to that goal.
When it comes to books, it’s understood and acknowledged that certain titles stay in the collection even if they don’t meet required circ levels. These titles have a cultural value that trumps their circ value.
But I rarely if ever see a similar trump applied when libraries weed their movie collections. There doesn’t seem to be an understanding that certain films are important. If a library has a DVD of one of the foundational works of cinema and it doesn’t circulate, it seems that no one thinks twice about weeding it.
Moreover, very few non-specialized libraries put anything like as much thought and planning into their film collections as they put into their book collections. Librarians understand the need to apply genuine subject expertise when creating and maintaining book collections—but outside of specialized libraries, I rarely see any similar subject expertise applied to creating or maintaining movie collections. I rarely see much attempt made to gain such expertise. Few people seem to recognize the need for it when it comes to film. Survey the movie collections of public libraries across the country and you find that most of them are hodge-podge, at best, with no guiding vision for the collection. All too often, it’s apparent that whoever did the movie purchasing didn’t have nearly the requisite cinematic literacy to make properly informed decisions.
How often do you search the movie collection of a public library looking for, say, Wuthering Heights with Laurence Olivier and discover that they only have the recent made-for-TV version with Tom Hardy? Not that the Tom Hardy version is without its virtues, but the Olivier version is the one that’s truly important in the history of film. Olivier’s is the one that a cinematically literate collection should have.
Film (along with its descendants: TV and video) is arguably the most important art form of the modern world. Movies can be—and frequently are—much more than mere entertainment. Some of our most powerful artistic, cultural, and social statements have been made in this medium. Cinematic literacy has real value.
Why, then, do so many libraries hold their film collections to such a dramatically lower standard than their books?
I know—part of the issue is limited resources. Plutarch is cheaply acquired in print, but rare and important movies are expensive. (This will change, hopefully, with increasing options for digital access to movies and television.) Even more—we don’t always have enough time to put into acquiring true cinematic subject expertise.
But my experience tells me that it’s more than just an issue of resource allocation. It’s an issue of entrenched perspective—a perspective that holds movies as intrinsically less culturally valuable than books. A belief that a good movie isn’t as good as a good book, or that a bad movie is worse than a bad book. I believe this perspective is incorrect and short-sighted.
I think we can put more vision into our film collections than we do. We’ve always recognized the need to keep up-to-date and informed on books. I’d like to foster a deeper appreciation for films.