By Ethan Cheng ~
I’ve always wanted to work in a library. As a student of the life sciences spending the summer doing neuroscience research at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), I took the opportunity to supplement my lab internship by volunteering a few hours a week at the National Library of Medicine (NLM). I was seeking an entry point into studying the history of science and medicine, and its potential to reconnect the disparate “branches” of science and the humanities.
As a physical place, the library was memorable. The parquet floor in the HMD Reading Room, the “hyperbolic paraboloid” capping the central atrium, and the overall modern, clean design are defining features that showcase the history of the building itself. This concordance between an edifice’s structure and the subject matter of its contents called to mind the powerful architectural styles of established Smithsonian museums and other world-famous libraries. College students would undoubtedly designate it a top study spot, an ideal place to spend a quiet Friday afternoon.
In my case, those summer weekday afternoons were spent organizing and describing a collection of films donated by the Catholic University of America (CUA) to NLM’s Historical Audiovisuals Program in 2017. This information was to be compiled into an online finding aid to make the film titles more discoverable for library patrons.
The films came from CUA’s recently renamed Conway School of Nursing, home to one of the nation’s top nursing programs. The school offers an array of degree options, including a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), a Ph.D in nursing, and a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). The history of the program, and its emphasis on humanism as well as theology, philosophy, and disciplines outside of medicine, is helpful in understanding why they may have chosen to collect and preserve these specific films for teaching.
Examining and watching the films was a delightfully physical process. Gauging runtime required measuring the diameter of the reel. Date of publication was determined from tiny symbols marked on the film itself. Mounting a film reel, running film through the Moviola machine, tightening it, and watching the reels speedily unwind and rewind on either side of the machine was rhythmic and sort of therapeutic. The analog nature of watching the film, more than the black and white frames or the actors and narrators’ trans-Atlantic accents, projected the most authentic feeling of time and place. Color films that appeared dark red in the canister were red on the screen; not tightening the film properly and crisply during set-up made for a shaky viewing with garbled, scratchy sound; adjusting the speed dial made the actors move in slow motion as if they were straining against a powerful force, while their voices drastically transformed in register and character.
It was not possible to watch and review all the films in the CUA collection in their entirety—there are 62 in total—but I highlight some representative titles and my impressions of each below.
Some highlights of the Catholic University Medical Film Collection:
Rose by any other Name, 1976.Set in a nursing home, an elderly resident, Rose, tries to maintain an intimate relationship with another male resident, with much resistance from the home’s administration. Much like Special Universe, the film’s plot remains unresolved at the end, as Rose struggles due to her age to have her wishes and needs recognized.
The Special Universe of Walter Krolik, 1967. The film presents the surprising challenges of tuberculosis isolation treatment in hospitals by looking into the “special universe” of a unique patient whom the system fails to understand. The film is prescient; many exigent connections can be drawn to healthcare today.
The Lonely Night, 1960. An in-depth examination of childhood, personal relationships, and their psychological underpinnings, The Lonely Night contains both dialogue-heavy sessions between a troubled young woman and her psychiatrist, and rich vignettes focusing on childhood. It is one of the longest educational films produced by the Mental Health Film Board (NLM holds 10 other titles by the Board, including seven titles in Digital Collections). Its treatment of mental illnesses has the depth, nuance, and accessibility needed to fill that expansive runtime. Also see “Working and Playing to Health.”
The Eye of the Beholder, 1953. This fascinating episode in the Emmy-winning CBS anthology series, General Electric Theater, hosted by Ronald Reagan, is an unusual entry in the CUA film catalog. It stars Richard Conte as Michael Girard, an artist whose questionable and ambiguous behavior is interpreted through the eyes of those he meets. After their remarks, the audience finally hears Michael’s side of his own story. This serial’s inclusion emphasizes how CUA focused on themes and content when selecting films for their collection; even material from more popular sources, like television shows, could provide insights for prospective nurses.
Stop and Smell the Roses
As I spent more time at the library, I realized what such a place offers patrons in our modern world of keyword searches and Google Maps: the freedom to get lost, to wander, and to accidentally discover. At the beginning of summer, I looked over a copy of the library’s beautiful Hidden Treasure publication. The very first essay in the book was about Thomas Aquinas’ work on Aristotle’s de Anima and gave away the ending of Umberto Eco’s 1980 bestselling mystery The Name of the Rose. Coincidentally, I received a recommendation for Eco’s book from a friend in Italy (where the novel is required reading). I took this as a sign that I needed to read Eco’s debut novel. Therefore, as I collected, crossed, dissected, and imaged fruit flies in the lab, the words of Umberto Eco played in my ears, headlining my eclectic summer audiobook and music soundtrack and the cutting-edge, empirical sensibilities of Eco’s William of Baskerville, as well as the feeling of “playing detective,” permeated my lab work. In Eco’s postscript to The Name of the Rose he explains the origin of the ambiguous title and its references to a variety of symbolic roses. He states, “The rose is a symbolic figure so rich in meanings that by now it hardly has any meaning left.”
How does this connect with the library, beyond the book’s famous Aedificium? I found that this trail of roses continued within the CUA film collection. I discovered Rose by any other Name (which references the famous Shakespeare quote) and Special Universe, and a growing awareness of the plurality of interpretations, independent of name or definition. A couple of weeks after noticing this, I was volunteering in a nursing home and one of the residents I was providing tech support for had a poster of Gertrude Stein, widely known for her quote “A rose is a rose is a rose.”
I feel as though this sequence of coincidences running through my summer, while superficial, is also suggestive of a meaningful concordance or consilience between many different fields, including in this case, film, public health, science, medicine, literature, philosophy, and history. One of many more compelling arguments for this overlap would be to talk about the connections between computational methods in neuroscience research (artificial intelligence and deep/machine learning) and the growth of data science in the humanities (digital humanities) on the horizon for the library. But these subtle, coincidental links and parallels feel more fun and exciting. For me, the roses began to represent how symbols and definitions both suggest and belie deeper structural or metaphysical meanings. There can be both a commitment to identity and the way things are, as well as a willingness to “break down” and analyze the symbol to integrate it with other profound, seemingly distant, concepts. Art and science do not equal subjectivity or objectivity. We need an appreciation for all of them. The questions we can answer are intimately tied to both the usefulness and the incompleteness of our tools. As those who are acquainted with Eco’s thoughts regarding post-modernism may have noticed, The Name of the Rose is possibly the best work of fiction I could’ve chosen for my summer’s reading.
To bring this back to the NLM and the Catholic University’s diverse film collection, I believe that interdisciplinary inquiry and experiences can motivate creative thinking, add fresh ways of thinking about a discipline, and promote spontaneous, free exploration. In the same vein, much of the best science has always relied on lucky accidents, serendipitous discoveries, and creative inspiration from nonscientific sources. It seems like whatever I learned in lab or at the library immediately related to new discoveries and realizations from a totally separate activity in the following days. It’s similar to noticing someone’s face more once you learn their name; the process of perceiving more coincidences could be the first sign of a subconscious shift in mindset coming to the surface, allowing one to transcend the current field, and revealing ideas that before were latent or locked away.
I’m not a professional film historian, philosopher, archivist, scientific researcher, or even a regular blogger. However, I hope my unique, subjective experience—spending a summer in both a lab and a library—provides insight on the potential of an immersive interdisciplinary education, how what seems indeterminate and based on chance can lead to understanding, and what these trails of roses may really mean.
The Catholic University Medical Film Collection finding aid can be found here.
Ethan Cheng is a junior Biological Sciences Major at the University of Maryland, College Park and a volunteer in the Historical Audiovisuals Program in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine. This upcoming semester he will be conducting an independent study at the NLM with a professor focusing on the History of Science, specifically on topics relating to visual culture/technology, brain imaging research, and the popularization of science. He’s also excited to continue to explore the library’s collections, learn more about computer science, and follow his overall interest in examining the interconnected nature of all types of knowledge.