If you take US Route 20 heading east from Albany, New York, you will eventually drive through the rural village of Nassau. There are three gas stations, a couple of pizza places and a trailer-cum-restaurant on the empty lot where Delson’s department store stood until it burned to the ground in the early 1980s.
Past the village’s one traffic light, on the right is a small white building with a black sign in front: Nassau Free Public Library. Most of this two-room branch of the Upper Hudson Library System is taken up by the children’s and young adult section. When I was growing up five miles outside of Nassau, it was a favorite place to visit. Mrs. Sherman was the branch librarian, kind, grey-haired, soft-spoken. I remember vividly the feeling of security and sanctuary I felt as a very small child, looking at book after book while perched on a wooden foot stool.
For me, however, the most significant aspect of the Nassau Free Public Library was its children’s film screenings. Tuesday nights at 7:30, the children in this small corner of Rensselaer County would gather in the basement, parents sequestered in the adult reading room upstairs or the Stewart’s gas station and coffee shop down the street. I can still envision the experience of my first movie night. All of us kids sitting on the floor in front of the projector while a color 16mm film was shown: a boy running through a summer field. It wasn’t just that this was a motion picture - after all, this was 1980, not 1880- but that it was our motion picture. Something made just for children and being shown just to children.
How these films reached this basement room in this library in this village in this county actually has a long and noble history. Public libraries first started experimenting with using films in the 1910s; the film medium had been recently deemed an ideal disseminator of education and knowledge and libraries were naturally interested. By the 1940s, public libraries were building their own 16mm film collections and by the end of the 1950s, public library audio-visual and film departments were cropping up throughout the country.
The films I watched at the Nassau Free Public Library were part of a large collection of 16mm films owned by the Upper Hudson Library System. Librarians in branches within the system would arrange film programs, request the films from the central branch in Albany and return them when finished. In addition to children's films, Upper Hudson owned films about the World Series; Bruce Conner’s seminal avant-garde piece A Movie; the post-war, pro-unity Boundary Lines; a number of Little Rascals shorts; Martha Coolidge’s documentary David: Off and On, about her brother’s struggles with school, society and drugs; the feature film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner; and the NYU student film It’s About This Carpenter. When the system de-accessioned its 16mm film collection in the 1990s, most of the films came to The New York Public Library’s Donnell Media Center (now The Library for the Performing Arts Reserve Film and Video Collection). I know this because my very first job out of college was to inspect and report on every single print received by Donnell from the Upper Hudson Library System. 20 years removed from watching films in the basement of the Nassau Free Public Library, I found myself in another basement of another public library mesmerized by the same films.