Making a (Video) Difference: Dal and Halifax Public Libraries team up to purchase film collection

- August 16, 2016

Halifax's Video Difference location on Quinpool Road. (Ryan McNutt photo)
Halifax's Video Difference location on Quinpool Road. (Ryan McNutt photo)

When David Nicol heard the news that Halifax’s Video Difference was closing its doors, his initial response bordered on fatalistic.

“It was like, ‘oh no, this is an absolute disaster,’” says the Dalhousie Film Studies prof and faculty member in the Fountain School of Performing Arts. “We immediately recognized this was a catastrophic moment for film studies in Halifax.”

A little dramatic? Maybe. But for 34 years, if it was drama you were looking for — or comedy, or foreign or classic cinema — Video Difference was Halifax’s go-to destination. You’d find the hottest new releases to rent, sure, but what made Video Difference special was buried among the 80,000 titles in its massive collection: an incredible diversity of genres and unique and specialized films, including an extensive range of foreign films and titles from Criterion and various notable film institutes. It was a film fan’s video store — and a film student’s, for that matter.

“If there was a film I thought might be valuable to one of my classes, I’d just head to Video Difference, rent it, and see if it would work,” says Dr. Nicol. “Same thing with students: if they were doing a research assignment and wanted to find, say, some classic or foreign films, they’d go exploring at Video Difference. It was an incredible resource.”

And if you think that such a resource doesn’t matter in the digital age, think again: even putting aside the thousands of films not available for legal digital purchase or streaming, DVDs are more convenient for teaching (with easy bookmarking) and can be easily loaned or shared with students and colleagues. Without a convenient local resource, the last resort for many profs is simply buying expensive or rare DVDs online.

All of which makes the loss of Video Difference worth mourning — or, for Dalhousie, worth doing something about.

A powerful partnership

Recognizing how important Video Difference has been to Dal’s Film Studies program over the years, Dr. Nicol and his fellow prof Shannon Brownlee have spent the past two weeks working behind-the-scenes with colleagues in the Fountain School (including Estelle Joubert, the Fountain School’s associate director, graduate studies and research), raising funds to try and purchase some of Video Difference’s collection. They soon discovered they weren’t alone in their interest: Halifax Public Libraries were also looking to find a way to keep some of the store’s rare and hard-to-find items in public circulation.

The two parties decided to join forces, and now Halifax Public Libraries and Dalhousie have announced a partnership to purchase approximately 5,500 titles from the Video Difference DVD collection.

“The groundswell of concern for the loss of access to Video Difference’s films was significant and many of these voices looked to Halifax Public Libraries to respond,” says Åsa Kachan, chief librarian and CEO of Halifax Public Libraries. “We listened, recognized the opportunity for our customers, and decided to investigate. The result is a new, exciting partnership with Dalhousie University and an opportunity to add impressive titles to our public collection.”

While plans for when and where the films will be available to the public and students are still being developed, the collection will be housed jointly in the Killam Memorial Library and at Halifax Public Libraries. Dal’s portion of the purchase amounts to over 1,000 titles in subject areas which support classes at the university, including silent film, French and Spanish cinema, and films from Ireland, Scotland, Australia and New Zealand. But the entire collection will be readily available to both the Dal community and the broader public.

“Anyone with a library card in Nova Scotia can borrow these videos and return them to any library in Nova Scotia through the popular Borrow Anywhere, Return Anywhere (BARA) program,” explains Donna Bourne-Tyson, university librarian at Dalhousie. “This is another exciting opportunity for the Dalhousie Libraries to work with our public library colleagues on a productive and innovative initiative of benefit to both the university community and the public.”

Coming together across the university

Dr. Brownlee has spent much of the past couple of weeks among the Video Difference stacks at both the Quinpool Road and Bedford locations, sorting through the collection and selecting films to purchase for Dalhousie. (She says she's often been mistaken for a staff member.) She’s checking each title against Dal's catalogue to avoid any duplication; these are all going to be new additions to Dal’s offerings, effectively tripling Dal’s Film Studies library with the university’s purchases alone.

“It’s amazing,” she says of the experience sorting through the Video Difference collection, noting she's been joined by colleagues in French and Political Science at times as well.

“For a film fan, it’s like the world’s biggest candy store.”

Dr. Brownlee has also been key to helping sort out the funding for Dal’s part of the purchase — but she hasn’t been alone in that effort. First, she reached out to the Fountain School and was able to acquire a grant through its Fountain endowment. From there, Dr. Joubert has been helping recruit other Dal departments to the cause. Support has come in from joint President-VPR-Provost fund, a Dalhousie Libraries endowment, Contemporary Studies, French, Political Science, Sociology and Social Anthropology — with more potentially still to come.

Then, through the Office of Advancement, Dalhousie began exploring opportunities with external donors. Already, an unnamed donor has stepped up with a $10,000 gift. In total, $25,000 has been raised thus far to support Dal’s portion of the Video Difference collection — and now, members of the Dal community or the general public who want to support the campaign can do so online.

“We are so pleased with our quick donor, volunteer and staff response to this opportunity,” says Stephen Harding, assistant vice-president of development. “Donors like to see this type of collaboration between large public organizations, especially when it comes to working quickly to keep a special curated collection like this available for students and for the public at large.”

For Frank Harvey, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS), it’s been rewarding to see this effort come together across departments and units.

"Shannon, Estelle, Stephen and Lori [Ward, director of development for FASS] deserve special thanks for their role in mobilizing support from colleagues across the Faculty and university, in a little over one week and with the backing of the Killam Library, Halifax Public Libraries and external donors, to acquire key collections housed at Video Difference,” he says. “It will guarantee public access to these titles and provide students and professors with essential material for their courses and research — a clear win-win-win that deserves to be celebrated."

A bright future for the films

Once the final details of the purchase are sorted out in the coming days and weeks, the next steps will be the cataloguing and processing of the collection. Sarah Stevenson, the new head of the Killam Library, as well as Collections Strategy Librarian Heather MacFadyen and Film Studies Librarian Karen Smith have already spent time supporting the purchase. University Librarian Donna Bourne-Tyson says she hopes a portion of the collection will be ready to borrow by early fall. She also notes that in addition to the videos Dal is purchasing, Halifax Public Libraries have extended their deposit library program to Dalhousie.

“This will allow Dalhousie to borrow a specified selection of videos from Halifax Public Libraries for an extended period of time, so that we can then loan them to our students, enabling us to provide additional support for the curriculum,” says Bourne-Tyson.

Dr. Brownlee says part of what’s great about keeping these Video Difference offerings publicly available is maintaining the human connection to the films — something she says is often missing from digital platforms like Netflix and iTunes. She’s already thinking about working with her students on curatorial assignments that echo the sort of indexing and presentation that Video Difference’s staff once provided.

“We can’t preserve the entirety of Video Difference and drop it into either Dalhousie or the public libraries,” she says. “But both parties are going to work together to do the best we can.”

As for Video Difference, the store is set to begin public liquidation sales later this week. But owner Tom Michael says he’s thrilled by the news that by working together, Halifax Public Libraries and Dalhousie will be able to keep a sizable amount of the store’s collection in public circulation.

“We are ecstatic that the collection will remain together,” he says. “Every title has been carefully curated over the years, and has been a labour of love for me and my staff. Now we know the Video Difference legacy will live on.”

Donate: Support Dal Libraries and the Video Difference collection


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