This interview features Jeff Thompson, Director of Brevard County Library Services. He speaks on the importance of libraries in the modern age and provides insight into the power of storytelling in film.
To begin, can you tell me a little bit about yourself and how you came to be the Director of Brevard County Library Services?
Jeff: I was born in Brevard County. I used the libraries here as a kid, and it made quite an impression on me. I really loved going to the library, and I continued to go as a young adult. So, it was a natural progression from there. Once I had a degree in English, I went ahead and went to library school after that. Then, I started working in the county law library for a number of years before going to the public library. In 2005, I was promoted to the position of Director of the Merritt Island Library. A few years after that, in 2010, I became Area Director, which is over multiple libraries. Then, in 2012, I became the Library Services Director, the position I hold now. That’s the basic trajectory of my career.
In your opinion, how important are libraries to our culture today?
Jeff: It changes over time, but I think libraries are still very important. The one thing that the library offers everyone is an opportunity to learn about things at their own pace and within their own interest. So, maybe you are interested in doing a particular thing career-wise but don’t have enough interest to go to specific training or school. You can research it in a library and see if that’s for you. Libraries are also just a good place to do some reading for pleasure. Of course, there are many other great things that the library is used for other than books. We have meeting rooms for clubs and other civic groups to use.
I think one of the most valuable things about a Library that doesn’t change is teaching young kids how to read. The earlier people start reading, the better it is for their lives in general, and kids develop a lot in the first five years. It’s never too early to expose them to reading. By doing so, it really does have a positive impact on the rest of their lives.
To go off of that, how can libraries help a new writer?
Jeff: This is an interesting thing. Libraries do host, in many cases, writing clubs. A lot of writing groups use the library for meetings and discussions. Self-published authors will also donate their books to the library. We can’t purchase them, but if people are good enough to donate, we happily accept them and love to support our local writers.
A few years ago, we had an organization called The Library Foundation, and we started an award to highlight local authors. Unfortunately, the foundation is no longer with us, but organizations like the Space Coast Writers’ Guild do awards. We always try to work with those kinds of organizations to give them space in the library to hold their meetings, and when they have special events, to publicize those.
What is the importance of literature in the modern age?
Jeff: I think it’s essential. We’re in an age where many people are spending time on things like Twitter and Facebook. Not to knock social media, but I think the one thing that writing gives us, particularly fiction, that we don’t fully appreciate, is a kind of wisdom. It’s a way of transmitting stories about life, and life is a messy thing. It’s not like doing math, where you have the right answer. So, being able to convey various human experiences through fiction gives us a much greater understanding of the world. Fiction is very valuable, and I would also extend that to film and other forms of fiction, not just books.
I heard that you also direct movies. How did you get into that?
Jeff: I’ve only made one film publicly, a documentary about ten years ago. I’ve worked on other projects as well, but I’m not really a movie maker. I’ve always liked film, though very much, just like I’ve always liked writing and reading. I love images, photography, and beauty, and film is one of the really great ways to capture beauty. It’s a little bit harder to do in writing, although it can be done.
What do you believe makes a good movie script?
Jeff: Well, I’m not sure there are necessarily rules. There are rules for making a story or a script make sense and function the way a machine functions. But at the same time, I think many terrific films have broken a lot of those rules. The primary thing a story has to do is speak to some kind of truth. It doesn’t have to be literal, but rather some kind of larger truth about the experience people are having. When you do that, it makes the story powerful and engaging.
Older stories or films that have truth in them remain relevant to this day. We’re still reading things that were written more than 2,000 years ago, and yet, they continue to have power and drive us.
Without that truth, do you think a script could break a movie rather than make it?
Jeff: Well, I think we’ve all seen it. It’s nearly impossible to make a good movie out of a bad script. There might be somebody that could prove me wrong, but in general, I think that’s really hard to do. Writing and film are basically symbols. They’re a system of using symbols to convey ideas and experience. So, the more those ideas and experiences have value and meaning, the more they’ll be accepted and useful. Just like a car is a tool, literature and the arts are tools that help us develop and grow.
Do you have any advice for writers wanting to get into film?
Jeff: It’s always good to educate yourself from people who know. There are some good books out there on screenwriting that are great to learn from. You should also learn from film itself and look at it critically to try to understand what makes it good or bad. I don’t know that I can exactly say what would be a successful formula. But, like anything else, you have to study what’s out there, study the literature, study the tools. Then, the only other thing is to practice those tools and try to get better.
Do you have anything else you would like readers of this Q& A to know?
Jeff: I would like to convey a little story about the power of the written word and the power of cinema. Back in the nineties, Baz Luhrmann did a version of Romeo and Juliet, and it was set in Laguna Beach, California. Basically, it was a modernized rendition of the story with Leonardo DiCaprio. I love Shakespeare, so my wife and I went to see this movie and saw it on opening night. The theater was packed, and we realized not too long after the film started that the majority of the people in that theater were young women, mainly there to see Leonardo DiCaprio.
At the end of the movie, when the climax comes, and the audience finds out Romeo is about to kill himself because he thinks that Juliet is dead, there was a gasp in the audience. And, almost the entire audience cried out, “Don’t do it. Don’t take the poison.” Then, after the film ended, the whole audience was weeping. I actually began to weep, too, even though I knew the story pretty well and had seen many different versions of it.
What blew me away was its power. Even if people weren’t necessarily there for Shakespeare’s story, the story hooked the audience anyway and worked the way it was intended to. The story was written 400 years ago but could still have the same impact in 1992 or ’93. To me, that’s just a great illustration of the magic of storytelling.
Any library updates?
Jeff: We’re open for business. If people want to come in, we have protocols in place to keep everyone safe from COVID-19. We’re doing our normal, traditional library process of loaning books and hoping for better days to come, of course.