If you grew up in the 1980s or ’90s, there’s a good chance your parents’ attic or garage contains a cache of VHS tapes with hand-scrawled labels: “Michael’s 3rd birthday,” “Jenn’s Piano Recital,” “Disney Vacation ’96!” You’ve probably never thought about them, to say nothing of having watched them.
To the D.C. Public Library, though, those tapes are treasures. Its Memory Lab, at the Northeast Neighborhood Library on Capitol Hill, teaches the public to digitize old film and photos at no charge. And because some of the preserved home movies are too good to go back into someone’s attic, the library system is showing two hours of its favorites at Suns Cinema, an art-house theater in Mount Pleasant, as part of the library’s “Home Movie Day” series.
Watching strangers celebrate birthdays or pose in front of tourist attractions sounds voyeuristic, if not downright boring, but these clips, culled from tapes the library helped digitize — and curated by the librarians who watched them all — becomes a story of social history.
“It sounds like it might not be that fun,” concedes Siobhan Hagan, a project manager in the library system’s Memory Lab, who has been attending Home Movie Days across the country since 2009. She says there’s something unifying about watching these shared experiences such as birthdays or weddings, especially when combined with a heavy dose of nostalgia. “I’ve seen birthdays from McDonald’s in 1996. . . . From what toys the kids were excited about, to what they were wearing, to how creepy Ronald McDonald is, it’s a universal language” that all viewers can relate to.
Tuesday’s audience will see a range of occasions and time periods: family weddings from 1930s Chicago and 1990s Washington, the latter shot at the historic Metropolitan AME Church; scenes of downtown Washington and tourist sites in the 1960s; a University of Pennsylvania dance performance from 1993; scenes of “daily life” with parents and children at George Washington University Medical Center in the early 2000s.
“We’re really into using personal histories to help tell the story of D.C.,” says Lisa Warwick, a project coordinator for the library system’s special collections division. “An event where we get to show people how their daily lives are part of history is really important to the library.”
That interaction goes both ways: If the owners of the footage are in the audience, they’re asked to introduce the piece, “and a lot of times, people will tell stories as their movies are playing,” Hagan says. “It can be really emotional,” especially when reminiscing about family members who have passed away. “You can really get caught up in [the footage], even if it’s not yours.”
Tuesday at 8 p.m. Suns Cinema, 3107 Mount Pleasant St. NW.