When filmmakers Julie Dressner and Jesse Hicks saw hundreds of people waiting for the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library to open at 1 p.m. on a Sunday, they wondered why the library wasn’t open earlier and were inspired to do some research.
They soon learned that of the city’s 211 libraries, only eight are open at all on Sundays, which surprised them, especially given that a 2013 report from the Center for an Urban Future titled Branches of Opportunity reveals New York City libraries have seen a surge in use over the past decade, with a 46% increase in book circulation and an 88% spike in the number of people attending programs.
So much for the notion of the Internet and e-books making libraries obsolete.
Inspired to spread the word that libraries still play a central and critical role in the lives of many New Yorkers in the digital age, Dressner and Hicks produced and directed the documentary short Libraries Now: A Day in the Life, funding the project with a grant from The Charles H. Revson Foundation.
The duo spent six months filming at libraries in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island. Why not Manhattan? “When we set out to make the film, we decided that we wanted it to portray all three of the library systems in New York City: The New York Public Library, which operates libraries in Manhattan, The Bronx, and Staten Island; The Queens Public Library; and the Brooklyn Public Library. Our priority was to portray as much of the array of programming that occurs at the libraries as possible and to include libraries from all three systems,” Dressner says. “In the end, we selected the branches to shoot in because there was a particular person or program we wanted to profile. After our initial research and outreach was completed, we were pleased that we had selected at least two libraries to shoot in from each system.”
“Our priority was to include each of the three library systems rather than each borough,” she stresses.
While interviews with some subjects were arranged with help from libraries’ communications offices, neighborhood branch managers and librarians, about half of the people featured in the film are folks the filmmakers happened to encounter while milling about each location. “It was not at all difficult to find people who wanted to share their stories about how important the libraries are to them. For example, we arrived at the Bronx Library Center at 8:30 a.m., 30 minutes before it opened, and we started to talk to people online to learn why they were there so early,” Dressner says. “That is when we met Amanda Benitez, who told us that she arrives at the library early so that she can be sure to get a computer. That day, she was there to apply for financial aid to finish her nursing degree.”
When the filmmakers asked Benitez if anyone else in her family uses the library, they learned that her 9-year-old son Isaiah goes to the library every day after school because she can’t afford to pick him up after school, and she can’t afford to pay for an after-school program. “So we decided to film Isaiah after he finished school and followed him as he walked to the library. We were surprised to see that it was not only the librarians who were watching over the kids and helping them with homework–even the library security guard was helping out,” Dressner says.
The filmmakers also tell the stories of teenagers who see the library as a safe haven, immigrants to whom the library is a lifeline and jobseekers who rely on the resources the library provides.
Some of the people who benefit most from the library can’t actually go to the library as we learn through a mostly homebound woman named Bonnie Sue. “Since she very rarely leaves her apartment building, she lives a life that, by many measures, is extremely isolated. But she doesn’t see it that way. She has an outlet: the Queens Village Library and the Mail-A-Book program,” says Hicks, who was inspired by the profound effect the Mail-A-Book program has had on the lives of New Yorkers like Bonnie Sue.
The Mail-A-Book program delivers reading material free-of-charge, but it doesn’t end there. “Mail-a-Book administers conference-call book discussions, social chats and phone-in entertainment that they call Radio Shows,” Hicks enthuses. “Through this program, Bonnie Sue hasn’t only entered a world of stories through books, but also a social world with her fellow homebound seniors. Bonnie Sue says it beautifully in the film, ‘We may be in our homes, but we’re not isolated.'”
While Hicks has loved libraries since childhood, making the film got him thinking differently about what libraries are for and what they mean to people. “Before making this film, I understood libraries to be centers of information. But I quickly learned that they are cultural and educational centers as well,” Hicks says. “What blew and still blows my mind is that the library system has taken on this mission of cultural enrichment outside of its doors for those who can’t make it to the building.”