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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Summer 2008

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Science Documentaries at Your Library: Two Penn State Programs

Emily Rimland
Information Literacy Librarian

Nancy J. Butkovich
Head, Physical & Mathematical Sciences Library

Linda Musser
Head, Fletcher L. Byrom Earth & Mineral Sciences Library

The Pennsylvania State University
University Park, Pennsylvania

Copyright 2008, Emily Rimland, Nancy J. Butkovich, and Linda Musser. Used with permission.


Two science branch libraries at Penn State's University Park campus hosted film series centered on scientific documentary films. Although the reasons for starting the series differ, both have been successful in meeting their goals. Patron responses have been favorable, and the series have focused attention on the collections and services offered by the libraries.


In this technology-driven age, libraries are faced with a multitude of challenges. One of the most critical is enticing patrons to come to the library in person. Having a clean, attractive facility with electronic access is essential (Carlson 2005). Offering services that patrons want is also crucial, but beyond traditional services, such as reference and circulation, what else can be done?

There is a growing body of literature that describes innovative services being offered in libraries and in particular, science libraries. The University of Rochester's Carlson Library has a popular science alcove with books, magazines, and games designed to provide a comfortable and welcoming place for students (Cass & Clark 2005). Georgia Tech offers a series of lectures by faculty members who discuss their research. The library also publishes a one-page newsletter designed to be posted on the inside of restroom stalls (Axford et al. 2006). Wake Forest hosts a video game night (Sutton & Womack 2006), and MIT uses blogs, RSS feeds, orientations, and workshops (Duke et al. 2006).

At Penn State two of the science libraries have gone yet another route by offering film series. Public libraries have a long tradition of feature film nights, and the National Science Foundation Library has a very successful program combining feature science fiction films with presentations by scientists on the depiction of science in the films (Bianchi 2003). Unlike the examples above, however, the film series described here are focused on documentary productions.

The Video Series

In the late 1990s when the University Libraries at Penn State became responsible for the operations of a large media services unit, librarians became responsible for the selection of audio-video materials. The Earth and Mineral Sciences (EMS) Library video series was launched in the spring of 2000, shortly after the creation of an internal 20-seat instruction lab with video projection capability. The series was seen as a way to raise awareness of the change as well as the Library's newly-acquired audio-visual collection.

Since its inception, over 275 videos have been shown in the EMS Library. Earth science and related titles in the Libraries' collections are selected for the series, which features weekly showings year round while classes are in session. While the day of the week and time of the video showings varied initially, the EMS Library video series is now shown on Wednesdays during the noon hour. Titles are selected so that they can be shown in their entirety during a one hour time period.

The other series, Friday Flicks, was established for an entirely different reason. For three years, patrons attempting to use the chemistry, physics, astronomy, mathematics, and statistics collections had to endure a merger of two libraries, shifted and stored collections, minimal public seating, and the dust, dirt, and noise associated with renovations. When the new Physical and Mathematical Sciences (PAMS) Library was finally dedicated in August 2005 a film series seemed to be a good way to entice people to come back to the library and explore the new facility, its collections, and its services.

Despite the success of the EMS Library video series, starting a film series in the PAMS Library was a collection development gamble. PAMS Library patrons had never expressed much interest in having scientific documentaries available for their use. With a tight collections budget, could the purchase of these documentaries be justified, particularly since public performance rights would also need to be purchased? The potential benefit seemed worth the risk, so the first documentaries were ordered in fall 2005. By the spring of 2006 enough videos had arrived to have a seven week trial run beginning after spring break and running through the end of the semester.

Like the EMS Library, the new PAMS Library had an instruction lab with projection facilities that would be an excellent venue for the series. Deciding on the day and time was more problematic, but finally Friday afternoon from 3:30-4:30 pm was chosen for several reasons. It fit in an established Monday-Wednesday-Friday class period and, by that time on Friday, most classes were finished for the week and the potential audience might be ready to ease out of the week's intensity with a little light science before dinner. Also, most, if not all of the films originally aired on television, where the typical time slot is one hour. A few documentaries run two hours but can usually be split into two segments, while occasional 30-minute programs can be shown as double features.

Marketing: Advertising Pays

Both series exemplify the importance of advertising. The EMS Library video series initially played to very small audiences; as the marketing campaign expanded, so did the audience. The same has been true with Friday Flicks in the PAMS Library where, due to time constraints, the first two films were shown with essentially no advertising beyond flyers at the circulation desk. Audience size increased dramatically as soon as the advertising campaign started.

Advertising was accomplished through a two-pronged approach. The University Libraries Public Relations and Marketing Office was extremely helpful in coordinating much of the advertising. This department also prepares advertising copy and a variety of customized posters for the film series. Because of their expertise in this area they were vital to getting information about the film series into a variety of news outlets in the area. Specific areas where they assisted include:

Another marketing boost came in the form of two articles written by student reporters for the Daily Collegian. One article consisted of interviews, facilitated by the Public Relations and Marketing Office, which highlighted some of the films in the Friday Flicks series (Labuskes 2006). The other focused on the EMS Library video series (Cherundolo 2006).

In addition to the work done by the Public Relations and Marketing Office, library staff and students were also involved in preparing and distributing information about the film series. Outlets that were tapped directly include:

Patron Responses

Both video series have met their goals. Friday Flicks at the PAMS Library averaged approximately 10 people per week in the Fall 2007 semester, up from seven during the Spring semester 2006 trial run, and use of the facility in general has increased. While the weekly attendance at the EMS Library video series is generally less than that of Friday Flicks, average attendance has grown and use of video materials (and requests for them) is up. Attendance does vary from week to week and may be attributed to things as basic as the weather, other events on campus, and the topic of the video (see Appendix 1). The video series have had the added benefit of raising the libraries' profiles in the local community, since both libraries are seeing community members as well as Penn State faculty, staff, and students attending.

These series also support the instruction and outreach missions of the University. Faculty members attend because a film relates to a course that they are teaching and want to see if it is worth using in their class. Alternately, faculty may make attendance at the film series a part of their courses, either as a requirement or as an extra credit option. The general public is also an important component of the audiences and these series generate good publicity for the University and its libraries.

The series have impacts beyond their attendance figures. People attending ask questions about other aspects of the libraries. For example, those unable to attend inquire about the availability of the videos for check out which opens the conversation up to talk about other library-related items. Thus, the series have become vehicles for introducing people to the facilities, collections, and services of the University Libraries.

Lessons Learned

While every series will present its own unique set of challenges, here are some lessons that can be applied across the board.


A film series provides many benefits to the host library. It allows the library to present a positive image to the public and to reach out to its various constituencies by showcasing the collections and services offered by the library. Although hosting a series requires the investment of staff time for planning and logistics, and money for content and advertising, the rewards can be significant.


Axford, Mary, et al. 2006. Creating a BUZZ: Attracting SCI/TECH Students to the Library! Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship No. 45 (Winter). [Online]. Available: [Accessed 7/18/08].

Bianchi, Stephanie. 2003. It's Amazing! It's Astounding! It's Sci-fi in the Library! Sci-Tech News 57, no.1 (Feb.): 4-5.

Carlson, Scott. 2005. Thoughtful Design Keeps New Libraries Relevant. Chronicle of Higher Education 52, no.6 (Sept. 30): B1-B5.

Cass, Diane; Clark, Katie. 2005. Establishing a Science Browsing Collection for Undergraduates: A Success Story. In "Better Understanding Your Users," SLA Web Conference, 18-31 July;

Cherundolo, Gina. 2006. Films focus on pollution. Daily Collegian Online (1 March) (}

Duke, J. Darcy; Hartman, Stephanie; Locknar, Angela. 2006. Reaching the Engineering and Science Communities: New Technologies and Approaches at MIT. Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship No. 45 (Winter): 1-9. (online at

Labuskes, Brianna. 2006. Series offers documentaries on astronomy, math. Daily Collegian Online (6 April), {}

Sutton, Lynn; Womack, H. David "Giz". 2006. Got Game? Hosting Game Night in an Academic Library. C&RL News 67(March): 173-176.

Appendix 1

A selection of some of the more popular programs that have been shown in the two series.


Bye-bye, Planet Pluto (DVD). [England]: BBC Active; Princeton, NJ: Films for the Humanities and Sciences, c2006. (50 min.)
The Death Star: Hypernovas and Stellar Nurseries (DVD). Princeton, NJ: Films for the Humanities and Sciences, c2004. (50 min.)
Exploring Space: the Quest for Life (DVD). [Alexandria,VA]: PBS Video; c2006. (120 min.)
From Here to Infinity: How Will the Universe Die? (DVD). Princeton, NJ: Films for the Humanities and Sciences, c2003. (50 min.)
Is Anybody Out There? (DVD). Lawrenceville, NJ: Cambridge Educational, c2006. (27 min.)


The Best Mind Since Einstein (DVD). Boston, MA: WGBH-Boston; Arlington,VA: PBS Video, [2006], 1993. (56 min.)
Einstein's Wife: The Life of Mileva Einstein-Maric (DVD). Alexandria, VA: PBS Video, 2003. (60 min.)
Richard Feynman: Take the World from Another Point of View (DVD). Princeton, NJ: Films for the Humanities and Sciences, 2003. (28 min.)
The Uncertainty Principle: Making of an American Scientist (DVD). Princeton, NJ: Films for the Humanities and Sciences, [2003]. (Approx. 54 min.)


Albert Einstein and the Theory of Everything (DVD). Princeton,NJ: Films for the Humanities and Sciences, 2005. (50 min.)
The Copenhagen Interpretation: Physics vs. Relativity (DVD). Princeton, NJ: Films for the Humanities and Sciences, c2006. (59 min.)
Einstein's Equation of Life and Death (DVD). Princeton, NJ: Films for the Humanities and Sciences, c2005. (50 min.) Princeton, NJ: Films for the Humanities and Sciences, 2003. (28 min.)
Femtosecond Spectroscopy: Beyond the Naked Eye (DVD). Princeton, NJ: Films for the Humanities and Sciences, 2004. (30 min.)
A Life of Time: Physics and Cosmology (DVD). Princeton,NJ: Films for the Humanities and Sciences, c2005, 1999. (30 min.; from the series The Physical World).
The Search for Reality: the Story of Quantum Mechanics (DVD). Princeton, NJ: Films for the Humanities and Sciences, c2003. (30 min.)


Atmospheric Hole: The History of the Ozone Layer (DVD). Princeton, NJ: Films for the Humanities and Sciences, 2006. (28 min.; from the series Late Lessons from Early Warnings: the Ongoing Need for Vigilance.)
Common Ground: the Battle for Barton Springs (VHS). [Austin, TX?}: Watershed Productions, c1993. (28 min.)
Homeland: Four Portraits of Native Action (VHS). Berkeley,CA: Katahdin Productions: Orchard Pictures, 2005. (88 min.)
The Johnstown Flood (VHS). Alexandria, VA: PBS Video, c1991. (58 min.; from the series The American Experience).
Our Precious Water (VHS). Auburn, MA: KPS Video Productions; Ben Lomond, CA: Video Project, c1997. (27 min.)


Logic: The Structure of Reason (DVD). Princeton,NJ: Films for the Humanities and Sciences, c2004. (43 min.; from the series Great Ideas of Philosophy).
The Math Life (DVD). Princeton,NJ: Films for the Humanities and Sciences, c2002. (51 min.)
Music of the Primes: Math's Greatest Riddle, Math's Greatest Minds, pts. 1-3 (DVD). Princeton, NJ: Films for the Humanities and Sciences, 2007. (83 min. for the 3 parts.)
The Story of 1: How a Single Digit Created Math and Changed the World (DVD). Lawrenceville, NJ: Cambridge Educational, c2006. (60 min.)
Understanding the Odds in Life (DVD). Princeton,NJ: Films for the Humanities and Sciences, 2003. (53 min.)

Appendix 2

Selected Resources for Identifying and Selecting Films in the Sciences and Technology




History Channel

Discovery Channel

National Geographic Society

Films for the Humanities& Sciences

Cambridge Educational films are also available at this site

Hawkhill Science



Environmental films

National Audiovisual Center

Films produced by government agencies


Library Video Company

Moonbeam Publications

A&E, History Channel,Discovery Channel, etc.

Independent films

Public Broadcasting Service

Includes NOVA series; the"shop pbs" site is the general home video site; the "" site eliminates many of the videos without public performance rights

The Video Project

DocUSeek Film & Video Finder

Search engine for eight independent producers/distributors


Review Sources

Science Books and Films

Educational Media Reviews Online

Note: Be sure to purchase Public Performance Rights if you want to be able to show the film/video in your library.

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