Interview with Gary Handman
Gary Handman, the recently retired Director of the Media Resource Center at UC Berkeley, has been a tireless advocate for independent alternative media and a visionary for its uses in the classroom. On the occasion of his retirement, Gary gave New Day’s Lynne Sachs a revealing, outspoken assessment of media collection-building, the critical role of alternative media in nurturing critical perspectives, and the future of educational media.
INTERVIEW WITH GARY HANDMAN
Former Director, Media Resources Center
University of California Berkeley (1984 -2012)
by Lynne Sachs
Lynne Sachs: WHY DID YOU BECOME A MEDIA LIBRARIAN?
Few if any library professionals are born media librarians. Media librarians generally fall or are thrust into the field, or they weasel themselves into the business through back doors. I naively went to library school thinking I wanted to be a media librarian because I had done a film minor at UCLA.
When I got to Berkeley, I found that there had been one class in media, but that the guy who taught it was, for one reason or another, bailing out of the program. This was in 1975, and home video hadn’t even been invented.
WHAT WERE MEDIA LIBRARIANS DOING AT THAT TIME?
Media librarianship back then was mostly the province of school librarians and largely entailed schlepping Eiki film projectors and slide projectors into classrooms. It became quickly and painfully obvious that media-oriented work in libraries was not a promising career path, unless you wanted to go into K-12 or into film archiving. So, I did other things with my MLIS degree for six or seven years.
WHAT ELSE DID YOU DO?
I was in the book acquisitions department of the UC Berkeley library, but I grew to hate working behind the scenes. Then, just as I was seriously considering changing careers, the fates smiled on me. There was an older librarian in the Moffitt Undergraduate Library, a visionary guy named Jim Gault.
CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT HIM?
Jim had a background in media from having served in the Navy Signal Corps, and he had a strong sense that media might just have important uses in university teaching and learning. Jim had conned and cajoled the library into opening a small “Audiovisual Media Center” on the basement floor of the library—a dark, tiny space with cast-off furniture, a few UMATIC players. There also was barely a budget with which to buy stuff.
IS THAT HOW YOU STARTED YOUR MEDIA LIBRARY CAREER?
Jim retired in the mid-80s, and I volunteered to fill in “temporarily” because no one else wanted the job. This was supposed to be a half-time temporary gig, but it grew into a twenty-nine-year, full-time career. When I took over the job, AVMC (which later changed its name to the Media Resources Center) had a collection that comprised maybe four or five dozen video titles, mostly BBC Shakespeare plays and PBS documentaries. This was in the late 70s—the dawn of home video recording–and there really wasn’t all that much to buy.
HOW HAVE MEDIA LIBRARIES CHANGED SINCE THEN?
At that time, faculty and library administrators were still pretty suspicious of media in general. Video was looked on as somehow either frivolous or remedial. Now there are over fifty-thousand titles in that same collection! Media has become an indispensable staple for teaching and a vital focus of research. MRC circulates more than sixty-thousand items a year to students, faculty and researchers. Since the beginning of what used to be called “The Home Video Revolution,” the universe of media content has super nova-ed. And the internet has, of course, brought with it another wave of revolutions that has changed the game again in inestimable ways.
HOW HAS STUDENT USE OF MEDIA CHANGED SINCE THEN?
Media audiences have also changed in astounding ways. In the years since I got into the field of media librarianship, students have become completely immersed in the media environment. They have media of one kind or another coming out of their pores; media is who they are. They’ve been born into a world of instant, ubiquitous access to a seemingly bottomless well of sounds and images, and they have very little tolerance for anything that slows or hinders their access to these media.
HOW HAS FACULTY USE OF MEDIA CHANGED?
Faculty have changed, too, particularly younger faculty born into this changing media terrain. In thinking about the cognitive and sociological sea-changes brought about by media, a quote from Don Delillo’s book The Names always come to mind:
“Film is more than the twentieth-century art. It’s another part of the twentieth-century mind. It’s the world seen from inside. We’ve come to a certain point in the history of film. If a thing can be filmed, the film is implied in the thing itself. This is where we are. The twentieth century is on film…You have to ask yourself if there’s anything about us more important than the fact that we’re constantly on film, constantly watching ourselves.”
WHAT MAKES A GOOD MEDIA COLLECTION IN A LIBRARY?
Effective collection building always depends on keeping the institutional goals and user needs in mind. An effective collection must respond to current needs as well as anticipate future needs. You’ve got to talk to users, keep an eye on academic programs, scholarly trends.
WHAT‘S A TYPICAL DAY FOR YOU?
I spend a large part of my day talking to faculty and grad students who come in to check out stuff from the Media Center, being nosey: “Which class are you using this DVD for? “ “What did your students think about the video you showed them?” “What are you going to be teaching next semester?” “What kinds of research are you doing these days?” A savvy media librarian is constantly sniffing the air for what is the next big academic thing. That is the most important aspect of the job, knowing the universe of available material and hooking clients up with that material, being responsive to trends and needs.
WHAT ISSUES ARE OF MOST CONCERN FOR VIEWERS THESE DAYS?
You watch the use patterns in your current collection to get a sense of teaching and research trends. For example, water and petro-politics seem to be a big issue. International adoption and child welfare issues are hot topics. Post-colonialism continues to be a popular subject. At Berkeley, issues of gender, race and sexuality are perennial interests.
HOW DO YOU KEEP ON TOP OF NEW MEDIA POSSIBILITIES?
Based on what you’ve learned by keeping a close eye on what circulates, you scout around to find related material that will strengthen the collection. My experience is that just buying the stuff isn’t enough. You have to aggressively publicize it, reach out to the faculty who might be interested.
DO FACULTY ALERT YOU TO NEW MEDIA?
Faculty tend not be aware of what’s new and cool. They may know print literature in their field cold, but it’s frequently the case that they’re clueless about what’s available on DVD (maybe not surprising given the lack of reviews and the lack of opportunities to screen most new documentaries).
DO FACULTY LIKE TO USE NEW MEDIA?
Faculty tend to use the same old stuff over and over. I figure that it’s a central part of my job to hook them up with what’s new and exciting in their academic fields of interest.
WHY SHOULD A MEDIA LIBRARY HAVE WORKS BY INDEPENDENT ARTISTS?
It is important for a library to have a collection that is diverse and responsive to the broad range of teaching and research on a campus. A diverse collection is one that includes a wide array of viewpoints, a wide variety of takes on what documentary scholar Bill Nichols calls “the historical world.” The university is a marketplace of ideas, a place in which students learn—or should learn—to actively interrogate ideas and concepts, to think about the world in critical terms, to formulate their own opinions and their own stands. I really think that independent documentary films can be incredibly important in this process.
HOW HAVE STUDENTS CHANGED SINCE THE 1960S?
It has been fascinating working at Berkeley for 35 years. In many ways students today bear very little resemblance to Berkeley students of the 60s and 70s. They tend to be disconcertingly conservative in many ways. And despite their access to everywhere-all-the-time media, oddly naïve about the world around them. Dealing with controversy is not always comfortable to them.
CAN YOU GIVE ME AN EXAMPLE?
I recently taught a sociology class in which we screened Marlon Rigg’s Tongues Untied (the stereotype-shattering 1989 film about black gay male sexuality directed by Marlon Riggs) . It freaked them out (which freaked me out!). I firmly believe that exposing students to non-mainstream and controversial viewpoints, getting them talking about these issues and how these issues are presented and portrayed, is a central part of their education: learning to be a mature person in the marketplace of ideas. This process is precisely what independent documentary films are good for.
ARE STUDENTS STILL INTERESTED IN WATCHING FILMS ON DVD?
No. Not in the least. It is a nuisance. They want it on their phones or their I pads. DVDs are a dying dog. I may strongly believe that physical artifacts have a long-range archival value, but students…? Students (and the rest of the consumer world) don’t want to deal with that stuff at all.
SO WHY ARE DVDS STILL AROUND?
I think that the only thing preventing the death of DVD at present is that Netflix and its like still have limited content. That’s bound to change. The thing that keeps me up at night is the thought of all the titles that’ll inevitably fall between the cracks in the transition from DVD to the next big thing.
HAS THE INTERNET BEEN A GOOD THING FOR MEDIA?
I think the online presence of independent distributors and filmmakers has made it profoundly easy to learn about and acquire indie documentaries, to connect with filmmakers. On the other hand, I’ve got to say that the proliferation of single-title film sites and indie filmmakers sites does often tend to give me a headache.
SO IS THE WEB MAKING A DIFFERENCE?
Undoubtedly the most significant way in which the web is changing the game is as a vehicle for delivery of indie film content. Students and faculty are clamoring for 24/7 access to media content. The Media Center is open until 9 pm most nights and you have to go there to watch or checkout DVDs. That’s increasingly not good enough.
IS STREAMING WHERE IT’S AT?
I think that if indie filmmakers and distributors don’t jump wholesale into the streamed video game in very short order, they’re not going to long be in any game at all.
WHAT DIFFERENCE DOES THE WEB MAKE FOR FACULTY?
The other interesting aspect of the web for academic users is its democratization of media. The ability to provide instantaneous access to history captured in the streets is pretty astounding. On-the-fly, grassroots filmmaking from groups such as Moveon.org and Witness.org, news, both produced and guerrilla, is increasingly being used in social sciences classes on campus. It’s a whole new world.
WHAT ARE THE MOST VITAL ISSUES THESE DAYS IN THE LIBRARY WORLD?
As a librarian, the one question that makes my palms sweat about all of this online video ephemera is: will it be around in five years? Who’s going to archive and preserve it for posterity?
SINCE YOU FOUNDED BOTH VIDEOLIB AND VIDEO NEWS (subscribing and posting information here), COULD YOU TELL US SOMETHING ABOUT BOTH LIST SERVES?
I started VIDEOLIB in the mid-1990s as a forum for video librarians, filmmakers, and others to discuss issues related to video collection development and management. With over 1,000 subscribers, it’s currently the most heavily subscribed list devoted to video in libraries, and certainly the most lively.
VIDEONEWS was started shortly after VIDEOLIB, as a way of providing a separate place for distributors and filmmakers to advertise their films. Posting to VIDEONEWS is free and the postings currently go out to around 700 subscribers.
WHAT IS BEING DISCUSSED ON THE LISTS THESE DAYS?
Some topics that get bandied about on the list include: copyright and intellectual property issues; evaluations of materials; collection development policy issues; selection methodology; acquisition concerns.
WHICH OLDER NEW DAY FILMS HAVE YOU RECOMMENDED TO FACULTY AND STUDENTS OVER YOUR MANY YEARS AS A MEDIA LIBRARIAN?
There are classics that still have the power to incite, move, and inspire: Deadly Deception is still like a kick in the head. Julie Reichert’s Growing Up Female still gets students talking, as do Girl Trouble and Foo Foo Dust. Global Assembly Line, although a bit old now, still gets used heavily and is a groundbreaker in globalization studies. Hopi, Songs of the Fourth World is a Native American Studies staple. Of course, Barbie Nation is a perennial favorite in Women’s Studies. I personally really like Twitch and Shout and have recommended it to many teachers.
HOW ABOUT SOME OF OUR NEWER FILMS?
Currently, A Village called Versailles is one of the most heavily used films in our collection. There is a faculty person doing a lot of research and writing on transnational adoption who really likes and uses Wo Ai Ni Mommy (I Love You, Mommy) and In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee.
WHAT MAKES A NEW DAY FILM DIFFERENT FROM MORE MAINSTREAM DOCUMENTARIES?
We live in an era of stupid media, of blockbuster mentality, in which commerce and pop culture fetish often direct what is seen and heard. People swimming against those streams are my heroes. I loathe “plain vanilla” documentary filmmaking, and New Day Films couldn’t be farther from that bland and innocuous style.
WHAT MAKES THE NEW DAY COOP REALLY STAND OUT FROM THE PACK?
In this day and age and this economy, and given the dominance of mainstream Big Media, the fact that a coop of indie filmmakers can still be around with a diverse catalogue of thought-provoking materials is pretty damn wonderful, if not miraculous.