WILKES-BARRE — Most documentaries tell the story of some historical person, place or event.
That’s what Wilkes University professors John Hepp and Mark Stine had in mind when they started working on “The Osterhout Free Library: A 125 Year Legacy of Public Service.” Little did they know that their documentary would essentially become a collection of oral histories about the historic facility on South Franklin Street.
Hepp said he and Stine were approached by Osterhout staff members about a year ago about a potential documentary at the Wyoming Valley History Project Conference. It was to be the tenth documentary that Hepp and Stine produced together.
The documentary is part of the year-long 125th celebration of the Osterhout. The area institution of knowledge first opened its doors on January 29, 1889
The initial plan for Hepp and Stine was to interview people then fit their testimonials into the script that was produced. They sat down to make the documentary in the early fall, and they realized that a step-by-step historical account was quickly fading away.
Instead, Hepp said, the people who were interviewed helped create a documentary that focused on the library as “a living history institution.” The talks were conducted with community patrons, current and former board members and other officials.
Getting some of the library workers to participate was a test.
“The strangest challenge that we had was that a large number of the staff were reluctant to be interviewed,” Hepp said. He said that hesitation came from not wanting to be on camera.
Hepp credited the library’s development director, Christopher Kelly, with getting workers to tell of their experiences. He said that if more interviews were gathered, a majority of them would have been used.
Hepp and Stine said they soon realized that they essentially had a collection of oral histories about the library. Instead of 15-second snippets of talking heads, the documentary instead featured testimonials lasting several minutes that described memories of the library and its importance to the community.
“As with most documentaries, the initial goal and the final product often end up changing during the process of the documentary,” Stine said.
Stine described oral histories as the recording, preservation and interpretation of historical information from interviews of those with first-hand knowledge on a subject. Traditionally, they are captured on audio tapes and interviews can last a few hours. Stine said the documentary was able to utilize those oral histories and to provide documentary viewers “with the motions, pauses and other meanings being conveyed non-verbally.”
Stine also said that unlike traditional oral histories, the ones captured in the Osterhout documentary are available for others to see.
Hepp also expressed his feeling about the importance of keeping personal memories about the library alive from the Agnes flood of 1972 to the present.
“What I kept on thinking about as we made the documentary is people are mentioning things that are never going to appear in a 20-page pamphlet on the library,” Hepp said.
Hepp and Stein crafted the documentary to educate people about a library that is often considered the gem of downtown Wilkes-Barre.
That process also resulted in a learning experience for the duo and created a greater sense of importance of the library for Hepp.
Stine said he discovered that the staff of the Osterhout became the theme of the documentary, something he said was unforeseen in the initial phases.
He had some knowledge of the Osterhout Free Library prior to working on the documentary. His wife was more familiar with it, and he learned more through her and the library’s annual book sale.
After working on the documentary, Stine said his appreciation for the library “is much more profound than I ever anticipated or knew that it was.”