By Shannon Lu
Every year, with half the school year behind them, high school and college students begin to fret about summer plans, jobs, and internships. I am currently a sophomore at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, pursuing a double major in Economics and Computer Science and a minor in Russian, and I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to be a Pathways Intern at the National Library of Medicine last summer. I spent my time in the Rare Books and Early Manuscripts Section of the History of Medicine Division, where I worked with the Library’s vast collection of Chinese and Cryllic pamphlets, which date from the 19th to the 21st century. The most important part of my work was to enhance the catalog records, such as this one, of these unique publications to make them more available to researchers and scholars who might otherwise have trouble finding these materials, even in the libraries of the countries of origin.
The National Library of Medicine has a vast collection of English publications about medicine, medical history, and health from the Western Hemisphere. What may come as a surprise to some people, however, is that NLM also has a large collection of publications in many different languages and from countries in Africa, Eastern Europe, and Asia. During my summer at NLM, I have flipped through the pages of almost two thousand different pamphlets, books, serials, and even handwritten manuscripts. Though the two projects that I worked on focused on publications written in Chinese, Russian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian, Serbian, and Macedonian, I also came across languages such as Japanese, Polish, Uyghur, Czech, German, Swahili, Mongolian, French, Romanian, Portuguese, Tibetan, Italian, Spanish, and Latvian.
As I worked though my cataloging tasks, I found many materials that dealt with basic topics of health and medicine. Especially in the Chinese texts that I worked with from the 1940s and 1950s, I frequently saw publications on hygiene, nutrition, sanitation, and first aid. Many of the small books and pamphlets had few words and many pictures. This is likely because the target audiences of these publications were children and mostly illiterate farmers and laborers in villages and rural parts of China. The topics varied from not spitting in public places to eating fruits and vegetables to boiling water and washing hands before eating so as to avoid cholera. In later publications from the 1960s to 1990s, the topics shifted to more advanced health care for malaria, parasites, infectious diseases, and, not surprisingly, a number of books on family planning and birth control. The most recent Chinese publications that I found were from 2002 and 2003, reporting on and researching the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).
While most of the Chinese texts seemed to be aimed at promoting public health, the Cyrillic texts tended to be far more specialized and advanced in terms of research and technology. This may be due to the fact that many of publications were from the 1950s during the Soviet Union’s immense innovation in science and technology. My favorite Cyrillic publication was one that discussed Ivan Pavlov’s experiments, especially those in psychology and of course, Pavlov’s dogs. I also came across a wide variety of other subjects including alcoholism, oral hygiene, child care, blood transfusions, neurotic diseases, radiation, mental disorders, and even plastic surgery, but the topic I found most frequently was tuberculosis. The juxtaposition of publications on high level scientific research, such as exposure to radiation, against the numerous books on tuberculosis, its prevention, its symptoms, and its manifestation in children was a hugely indicative of life in the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
I’ve only scratched the surface of these subjects simply by browsing through the pages this past summer, but NLM’s staff work daily to preserve and make accessible these and other invaluable collections.
Shannon Lu is a sophomore at Wellesley College where she is studying Economics, Computer Science, and the Russian Language. She was a Pathways Intern at the National Library of Medicine during summer of 2013.