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Where are Public Library Film Exhibition Policies?
By Steve Fesenmaier WVLC Research Librarian April 28, 2004
Allen Johnson, director of the Pocahontas County Free Libraries system
in West Virginia, e-mailed me, asking if I was aware of any policies
regarding film exhibition in WV or American public libraries. He had
shown “Bowling for Columbine” in January 2004 at one of his libraries
after a showing of the film at a local educational center was canceled.
He ran the film, and a large number of people came to the event, some
with contrary views to Michael Moore. Other local community members
wanted to show films with different viewpoints on gun ownership.
I wrote my MA thesis in library science, in 1978-9, on film collection
policies, surveying various published policies, and judging them wanting
since they showed minimal awareness of film history. I never was
successful in getting the West Virginia Library Commission to approve
the document as our official policy on film collecting – spending $
100,000/ year for almost 20 years on new 16 mm films, and then VHS,
CD-ROMS, and DVDs. I had sent the official ALA “Freedom to View”
statement to all of our public libraries around the state.
I have received a few complaints over the years. The mayor of Dunbar
protested showing films about domestic violence and incest; he also
protested showing “Word is Out,” one of the first documentaries on gay
men. I had lots of positive reviews to support the purchase of the film,
so the front-page scandal blew over – but the local librarian did end up
moving to Florida. My biggest storm was over the film “The Last
Temptation of Christ.” Everyone from the Governor on down demanded that
WVLC NOT purchase that film – which had faced marching protesters when
it ran at the WV Intl. Film Festival. One employee told me, “If you buy
that film, I WILL RESIGN!” Groups sent me petitions – which was fine. I
always suggested that anyone in the community contact me about ANY FILM
they had concerns with – “I want to hear from you!”
After speaking with Mr. Johnson, I called the leading expert on such
matters – Sanford Berman. He returned my call twice, telling me that he
had himself cataloged “The Turner Diaries” for Hennepin County Library,
and therefore knew that it was important to make such important
documents available to the public. He also emphasized that a collection
policy would be different from a film exhibition policy and that at
least at HCL the people who were responsible for public programming were
NOT the same people who were responsible for the collection. He also
said that some items not suitable for public exhibition might indeed
still be necessary for the collection.
I e-mailed the official ALA listserv for video librarians worldwide,
receiving only two responses. I e-mailed Don Woods at ALA Office of
Intellectual Freedom and received no response. I e-mailed ALA’s
listserv for intellectual freedom and received no responses or
postings. I was stunned – where were responses from other library staff
who exhibited films in their libraries?
I searched the web – there were no posted exhibition policies. I did
find collection policies – I knew that they existed since I had done my
thesis on them.
I decided to call Marie Nesthus, director of the media collection for
the New York Public Library. She told me that even they did not have a
film exhibition policy, but commented that it was important to place any
controversial films that were shown IN CONTEXT as when she ran various
anti-Semitic Nazi films from WWII at her library once.
So I decided to write a policy – here it is –
Pocahontas County Free Libraries
Film Exhibition Policies- Draft
April 27, 2004
Given that the ALA Freedom to View Statement states the following - To
provide a diversity of viewpoints without the constraint of labeling or
prejudging film, video, or other audiovisual materials on the basis of
the moral, religious, or political beliefs of the producer or filmmaker
or on the basis of controversial content.
[ To read the entire Freedom to View statement visit the website -
We believe in exhibiting films that represent a wide diversity of
viewpoints. All films will be judged on their quality and timeliness
concerning contemporary issues.
The only films we automatically reject are those that attack particular
ethnic, religious, and other groups, and support violence against these
Films that may not be deemed acceptable for exhibition can be donated to
the collection for loan to patrons. Films that attack particular ethnic,
religious, and other groups, and support violence against these groups
will not be judged suitable for the collection.
The director, in consultation with the board and community groups, will
be the final arbiter of what films will be exhibited and included in the
If any community member wishes to challenge the director’s decision, he
may file a petition and present it to an open meeting of the board.
-- written by Steve Fesenmaier, WVLC research librarian
I talked to Sandy a third time. He suggested that I contact the ALA
Kanawha County Public Library, the largest public library in West
Virginia, has purchased public performance rights for 8 libraries from
Movie Licensing USA, based on number of library cardholders. 12 studios
gave them rights – they cannot buy ads, but they can announce it in
newsletters – in-house, posted on their website as a pdf document (which
is not searchable.) Before they got the license, they paid up to $400
for one film for ONE SHOWING. The funds come from the book sale
receipts. They do not have a film exhibition policy.
I also e-mailed Sally Mason-Robinson at National Video Resources. She
has posted a model collection policy – but nothing on exhibition. I also
e-mailed Randy Pittman, editor of Video Librarian. He responded - he
had no knowledge of any film exhibition policies anywhere.
I did call the Reference Library for ALA. They searched the Ohio State
Library website for library policies –
winslo.state.oh.us/public/policies/html – and forwarded me to OIF.
Jonathan Kelley, administrative assistant at OIF at ALA, suggested that
the library use their display policy – as in book display, posters, etc.
with regard to content. He said, “Just like you cannot make a library
buy a specific book or other item. People have to go by collection or
display.” Beverly Becker, associate director of OIF, told me that she
was not familiar with any such policies, but did say that a library in
New York State ran into controversy while showing “The Last Temptation
I hope that ALA’s Video Roundtable can address this issue. Given the
great interest on the part of librarians about censorship imposed by
federal and local computer filtering law, censorship imposed by the
Patriot Act, etc. I would think that film exhibition policies would be
universal in American public libraries. Of course, many American public
libraries do not actual exhibit films, but almost all have video/DVD
collections. Libraries can use the Library Bill of Rights and the ALA
Freedom to View statements to show their patrons that they do indeed
believe in a wide spectrum of beliefs, not just the dominant ones.
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