Psst, read on for the city’s best kept secret

When I began writing this column, I conceived of it as a forum for exploring the difficulty of choosing courses of action in ghastly situations. I wanted to argue that in the muddy and tragic field of international relations, the options that seem viscerally repugnant might be the most compassionate ones possible under the circumstances.

In anticipation of Thanksgiving, I’ll give the theme of moral triage a rest and turn to New Haven, where fiscal restrictions have demanded painful sacrifices of all municipal institutions. Under these constraints, one little known desk has managed not only to make do, but also to expand the unique service it offers the city and its residents.

This Thanksgiving, I wish to express my congratulations and gratitude to the audiovisual collection of the New Haven Free Public Library. One of the city’s best kept cultural secrets, this stunning selection of free movie rentals lies just a block from the center of campus.

The Free Public Library is itself a treasure; it’s a far more pleasant place to read or sit than CCL, and it even has a few titles you won’t find in the Sterling Stacks. Yet despite the extraordinary ambience and selection, most Yalies will walk past the marble steps without once taking a look inside.

Beneath the floors of books lies a film buff’s quasi-erotic fantasy, an ever expanding collection of the popular, the obscure, the rare and the classic.

The quality of a library is not merely to be measured in numbers of titles, but the skill and care with which they have been selected. Picking videos for a urban public library is no easy task, especially given a limited budget.

Should a library offer patrons the same things they would otherwise rent at Blockbuster at a more affordable price, or try to amass arthouse and specialty items that commercial video stores shun? It’s a question of guiding philosophy, one which asks whether the function of a library is to entertain or to teach; a choice between catering to people’s existing tastes and trying to expand them.

The audiovisual collection is remarkable in the way it mixes the things that people already want to see with things that they ought to try. A few feet down from Sylvester Stallone’s “Cliffhanger” is Elim Klimov’s “Come and See,” a little known Russian classic about World War II that makes “Saving Private Ryan” look like the Teletubbies.

By placing obscure titles on the shelves alongside popular ones, the collection makes offers patrons an opportunity to discover films that they would otherwise never hear of. It also breaches a considerable socioeconomic divide.

Foreign films are significantly more expensive than domestically produced ones and video stores stock fewer of them. For many, such films are prohibitively expensive to purchase. This year, the library has acquired a number of titles from the Criterion Collection, a company that selects the best films, old and new, and reissues them in the highest quality DVD on the market. Such discs rarely sell for less than $30; our local Blockbuster barely stocks any. Yet they’re available for free weeklong loans to anyone with a library card.

By offering them free of charge, the public library takes arthouse films out of the preserve of the rich and democratizes access to a variety of cultural resources.

For Yalies, it’s worth noting that the Free Public Library has most of the films students need to watch for classes. Better yet, you don’t need to sell a kidney just to afford the nightly rental fees. (Given the comparison between Yale’s financial resources and those of the library, the comparison is rather shameful).

But describing the audiovisual collection simply as a cheap source of curricular materials really doesn’t do it justice. It’s an inexpensive way to find an evening’s entertainment, and an instant guide to cinematic literacy. It’s a great place to find films, pretend they’re relevant to class, and then enjoy hours of skillfully rationalized procrastination in front of a TV.

If you keep your film a day too long, you wind up paying a dollar to a service that richly deserves your contributions. If you want to drop a few bucks in the donation bin on the way out, you can consider it a real contribution to New Haven’s cultural life.

And if, as you pick up your films, a gracious thought crosses your mind, a word of appreciation to the librarians might be in order.

They richly deserve it.



Eli Muller is a senior in Silliman College. His column, which appears regularly on alternate Thursdays, is not about the war on Iraq today. Be grateful.

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