Stackes of film canisters on shelves.

Opening the Vault: Finding Aids for Film

By Gabrielle Barr ~

Every day, staff at the National Library of Medicine are working to maintain and expand the online catalog that provides the public with access to the ever-increasing collections.  Like many cultural memory institutions the Library sometimes acquires large collections of historical materials, which can take considerable time and resources to catalog and make available. One of my projects as an NLM Associate Fellow this year was to look at how finding aids and collection level catalog records, as opposed to individual item records, can expedite public access to film collections.

A photograph of a screening machine with a monitor and reels.
A Moviola machine for screening film

When I began my work with the Historical Audiovisuals (HAV) team in late February, I didn’t know the difference between a work print and an answer print, had never heard of B-roll, and had no idea how to splice together a torn film. I was tasked with developing finding aids for four unprocessed film accessions, and in doing so was exposed to the idiosyncrasies of describing and preserving films, something that had been only an afterthought in the mixed collections I had worked with in previous positions.

There’s a reason these finding aids are important. Until recently, NLM’s typical practice for adding historical films (and videos) to the collection involved staff selection of individual titles. These titles were cataloged and duplicated to more accessible formats so patrons and others could view them. Over the last year, the library has focused on digitally preserving U-matic tapes, a ubiquitous format that deteriorates much faster than film stock. Film accessions that have been waiting for assessment and selection, some for a long time, and new accessions coming in, cannot be handled using the old workflow.

A stack of film cans with lables.
Films from the Northwest Film Forum Collection

Instead, HAV’s goal is to inform patrons of the titles represented in our unprocessed material so that they can request a title be scanned and added to the collection; essentially, shifting to on-demand model. Currently there is no systematic way for researchers to learn about the many uncataloged titles NLM holds. Processing the films as archival collections with finding aids that include scope and content notes and inventories, with collection-level catalog records appearing in LocatorPlus, seems a viable option for arranging, describing, preserving, and providing access to NLM’s extensive audiovisual holdings.

The goals of the project were to generate up to five finding aids and catalog records as well as document, step-by-step, the workflows necessary to create these products. Though NLM plans to transition to ArchivesSpace to produce finding aids, I discovered that this upgrade was about a year away. I set out to amend the current model designed for manuscripts to fit best practices for describing audiovisual materials.

A photograph of the cover of Moving Image and Sound Collections for Archivists by Anthony Cocciolo.
Moving Image and Sound Collections for Archivists by Anthony Cocciolo, 2017

One of the first steps was conducting research online to get a sense of how other institutions have processed their film collections. I also looked at how NLM has approached arranging and describing audiovisual materials that are part of larger collections. I consulted the Society of American Archivists’ Arrangement and Description of Audiovisual Materials course packet, the Archives of American Art’s Guidelines for Processing Audiovisual Materials, and Anthony Cocciolo’s 2017 manual, Moving Image and Sound Collections, for formal instruction. Despite efforts to standardize the processing of audiovisual content, there is a significant amount of variation amongst institutions and even amongst how different collections held by the same entity are recorded over time. This allowed for—even demanded—experimentation during the project.

I created the finding aids using a Microsoft Excel template provided by John Rees, curator of the Archives and Modern Manuscripts collection, and the EAD interface, where I imported each inventory as a .csv file and entered collection-level information and access points. To check the validity of the xml and see how the final product might appear, I copied the code into oXygen (a software tool) and made necessary changes in the spreadsheet and EAD system. I produced the catalog records in Voyager.

There were many aspects to consider in adapting the finding aids to meet the needs of audiovisual collections, from terminology to access restrictions and copyright statements that accounted for the attributes of such materials. Manuscript-oriented location terms, such as “folder,” don’t suit audiovisuals, but cannot be changed in our particular model. It is still customary to include item-level scope and content notes when describing films. Thus, formatting was particularly important to integrating the film information into the template in a legible manner. Skillful use of spacing and punctuation created a semblance of structured sections within a free-form field. There were similar concerns for the physical description field, which needed to include information on color, sound, length, and in two collections, type of film. Standardizing the order of these attributes helps researchers parse through all the details associated with audiovisual materials.

An informal portrait of Nina Braunwald.
Nina Braunwald, ca. 1955
Changing the Face of Medicine

As a result of the project, I created finding aids and catalog records for the Nina Starr Braunwald Cardiovascular Research Film Collection, the Sandra Arpen Childhood Education Film Collection, and the Northwest Film Forum Collection. These films took me from the operating tables of NIH’s Clinical Center to rural Afghanistan, which prompted me to think about the concept of health from many vantage points. The film I found most striking was Madness and Medicine, produced in 1977, that looked at mental health treatment through the eyes of patients and called into question accepted practices.

It is unclear whether the specific steps developed during this project will apply with the arrival of ArchivesSpace, but I do believe that films should continue to be processed as collections. This form of processing allows researchers to see the connections among titles and realize historic trends, which is the mission of any archive.

Gabrielle Barr is currently completing a second year as a National Library of Medicine Associate Fellow at Northwestern University’s Galter Health Sciences Library & Learning Center.

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