On April 17, 2024

Student debut documentary on how books were saved

Courtesy VTSU Castleton
Next Wednesday, April  24, VTSU Castleton students will debut a documentary that’s been 18 months in the making. It documents the state’s failed effort to digitize VTSU libraries.

VTSU Castleton students to debut documentary “Error 404: Books Not Found,” on failed effort to digitize libraries

For 18 months, Vermont State University Castleton Communications students have been working on a documentary film detailing 2023 efforts by university leaders to digitize libraries — and basically get rid of most of the books.

Now, after numerous interviews, hundreds of hours of footage and hundreds more hours in the edit bay, the documentary, “Error 404: Books Not Found,” is ready to be screened to the public free on April 24 — and the students are excited to share their work.

“I love Castleton. I’ve wanted to go here since I was a kid and I wanted something to show the hurt and the frustration that the community has and that’s what this means to me,” said student co-producer Will Smith.

The nearly 40-minute film is the product of a Spring 2023 Documentary Workshop class led by Communications Professor Sam Davis-Boyd. In years past, the class has produced films on issues including homelessness in Rutland and Vermont’s burgeoning craft beer industry.

When choosing a topic for the semester’s documentary, Davis-Boyd raised the library controversy as a possibility. Despite the potential of controversy, she said students were immediately passionate about it.

“The email [announcing the library decision] was sent out and our next class was the next day. The students were very upset. I had a whole semester’s worth of projects we were going to do, but I floated the possibility of whether we should follow this story instead. It seemed like an important story to follow,” David-Boyd said. “They were excited, and we just jumped right in filming everything that was going on.” 

The project was led by co-directors/producers Smith and Lily Doton and edited under the leadership of Jacob Gonzalez with assistance from classmates Maddie Lindgren and Jacob Ruben. And although Doton and Gonzalez have both since graduated, they remained fixtures in the edit bay in recent months to see the project through.

“The fact they decided to stay on speaks volumes to how important they feel the story is,” Davis-Boyd said.

Doton said leaving the project she had invested so deeply in just wasn’t an option.

“I don’t like starting something and not finishing it. But it’s also because we were so close to the issue — the emails, the protests. After seeing all that, it would have been a disservice to not finish the documentary and tell the story we wanted to tell. I didn’t want to give up on this.”

Doton said she hopes Herrick Auditorium is packed with people on April 24 to see the screening.

“We want to get a lot of eyes on it, and we also just hope this can inform people who maybe weren’t very aware when these decisions came out,” she said. “There’s a lot of information in it that I don’t think the public is aware of.”

The film captures the raw emotion of students and faculty who vehemently opposed the cost-saving library measure pitched by since-resigned VTSU president Parwinder Grewal. Student film crews brought cameras to protests, to the statehouse, to VTSU Board of Trustees meetings and to the offices of several outspoken professors.

It also includes data from professors that suggests other cuts — like to the chancellor’s office — would provide much more relief that what was touted from digitizing the library. 

In the months since work on the documentary began, Grewal was replaced by interim VTSU President Mike Smith, who reversed the library decision. Although efforts are still underway to reduce the number of less-used books in the collection, plans to totally digitize have been scrapped.

Smith, who only agreed to serve as president basically until the merger of Castleton, Johnson, Lyndon and Vermont Technical College was complete last July, has since been replaced by another interim president, David Bergh.    

Gonzalez, the lead editor of the film, said seeing the film come to fruition is “surreal.”

“For the past 18 months, all of us have been working really hard on something that’s bigger than ourselves,” Gonzalez said. “To finally have that moment of presenting it and seeing people’s reactions as they visit the situation, it’s just huge for all of us.”

Gonzalez said he hopes the film sends a message that the library issue was more of an “administration problem” and that it prompts efforts to move the university in the right direction. 

He also spoke about the feeling of working so closely with classmates on something they all felt was so important and said this might not be their last project together.

“The three of us have talked about making, like, a production studio. We don’t want this to be the end all,” he said. “It’s been a huge blessing to be working with Lily and Will.”

Smith wanted to also give praise to the efforts of Davis-Boyd, saying he appreciated her technical guidance and hands-off approach to the film.

“She never put an editorial spin on this piece. She let us design the story and tell it the way we want to tell it,” he said.

The screening will begin at 6:30 p.m. in VTSU Castleton’s Herrick Auditorium. It will be followed by a Q&A with Davis-Boyd and students and light refreshments in the lobby with more opportunities to meet the student filmmakers.

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