Northern Lights Videos Reflect Minnesota’s Literary Landscape

Every day in libraries, bookstores and living rooms throughout the state Minnesotans gather to pore over books by local authors, books about the state’s history, studies of the land itself, idiosyncrasies of Minnesotans and stories of their unique approach to life. Bibliophiles venture forth on lush summer days and blustery wintry evenings for readings and talks by Minnesota writers and illustrators, those who review Minnesota press, publishers and reviewers. In a word, Minnesota is a state of lifelong readers.

What many folks don’t know is that there is a rich heritage of interviews with Minnesotans who have left their words or continue to write for Minnesota readers. Northern Lights and Insights is a little known collection of videotapes that record interviews with well over 500 Minnesotans with ties to the written world. The videos were produced over a period of thirteen years, first by Hennepin County Library and subsequently by the Minnesota Center for the Book which, during the late 1980’s and 1990’s, was housed at Metronet. As Director of Metronet at that time I was and remain inordinately proud of having had a hand in the production.

Production of the series has ceased, though the need has not. Many of the interviewees have achieved great literary success in the intervening years; sadly, many have died. Over time I have developed an absolute compulsion to assure that those incredible interviews are known by Minnesotans who love the books and who may want to the authors, illustrators and publishers.

This post is a preliminary but determined step aimed at preserving and sharing one of the state’s literary treasures through the best means possible.

All of the Northern Lights videos, in a mix of formats including VHS and Beta, are available at the Minnesota Historical Society Library. With funding from the state Legislature we were able to make videos available through interested regional public library systems in 1999-2000. Many schools include Northern Lights videos in their collections. All of the videos are cataloged in elegant detail and posted on the Web. My fervent hope is that some day, if an appropriate agency or collaborative will take responsibility, this video legacy of Minnesota literature may be streamed on the Web.

Because the project was low key and low budget emphasis was on content, matching interviewees with the right interviewer, assuring that local cable, including the Metro Cable Network, carried the half-hour shows as they were produced. The low tech production involved the writer and willing interviewer (who had read the book) sitting down in a working office. Dave Carlson, a producer who could work video magic without a studio, top of the line technology, or fanfare captured the conversation, then edited the tape for distribution on cable.

In some ways this 20th century effort was a precursor of today’s quick and easy on-site video. Promotion of Northern Lights was far from a realistic possibility for our bootstrap system; having no resources for promotion freed us to focus all of our efforts on seizing the moment and preserving it for posterity.

Some samples of the Northern Lights and Insights offers the a taste of the richness of the video collection. To wit: The series includes interviews with Bill Holm, Robert Bly, Meridel LeSuer, Kate DiCamillo, Eugene McCarthy, John Sandford, Gary Paulsen, Patricia Hampl, Elmer L. Andersen, James Shannon, and some 700 others. Program episode lists can be found on the Minnesota Historical Society website and on the online catalogs of participating public, academic and school libraries through MnLINK . (Search “Northern Lights” and look for video recordings – you will find some entries that include the term but refer to books; just move on to the videos.) Many of the videos are available in several libraries around the state – or patrons may request interlibrary loan at any local library.

2 responses to “Northern Lights Videos Reflect Minnesota’s Literary Landscape

  1. Dear Mary,
    I’m more than delighted to come across your post this morning. I’ve been wanting to digitize #204, Joanne Hart & Hazel Belvo, for use in my Intro to Literature class this fall. Our AV Tech guy at SW MN State said I could only use a snippet for copyright reasons, but he suggested I try and find the originator to ask for permission. I think you are she!
    Our library has a handful of videos from this great series. I’d be willing to try and digitize a few others in addition to Hazel and Joanne’s.
    I’d like to know the next step(s).
    Dan Wahl
    English Instructor, SMSU

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