A screenshot form an animated film showig a human figure over an earthtone abstract tile over a blue circle.

Archiving at a Distance

By Danielle Calle ~

I’ve just joined the National Library of Medicine (NLM), one of a cohort of emerging library, archives, and information science professionals banded together by a shared responsibility to collect, preserve, and curate biomedical knowledge and make it available to all for research, education, and public service. We are banded together also by the experience of joining NLM during an ongoing global pandemic, which has deferred working in the Library building, meeting new colleagues face-to-face, and working hands-on with the physical collections. Thankfully, however, the technology that undergirds our ability to communicate in a way that keeps us productive, physically distant, safe, and at ease also allows us to manage information about the collections, and to explore online the collections the Library has digitized, from anywhere in the country or the world.

A screenshot form an animated film showig a human figure over an earthtone abstract tile over a blue circle.
Still from Anatomical Animation by Frank Armitage
National Library of Medicine #8801174A

I, for one, find that this current physical limitation has provided special insight and a perception of the collection from the outside—as someone perhaps curious to know about the Library’s holdings, but unsure of where to start. In preparation for my new role, I began as many people would, by conducting a simple search query via Google. The combination of the words “audiovisual” and “NLM” generated many results, and eventually I wound up watching a February 2019 talk by Dr. Oliver Gaycken titled, “Fantastic Voyages through the Historical Audio-Visual Collections at the National Library of Medicine. This History Talk kicked off the launch of Medicine on Screen, the library’s portal to essays on rare and remarkable titles in the historical audiovisual collections.

In a screen shot from a film interview, a woman gives a man a disaproving look.
Still from Impotent Husband
National Library of Medicine #7600869A

In exploring some of these digitized films online, I was excited by how a very specific subset of cinema—medical education films—could touch on many of my scholarly interests around media and the environment. It was through Gaycken’s recorded talk online that I first became acquainted with Frank Armitage’s labyrinthine animations of the human body, the mixed media components of global health films (which would often employ broadcast moving image and print materials), and the cringe-inducing marital counseling videos helmed by Dr. Harold I. Lief. These became somewhat of an obsession of mine, as I found myself recalling the cutting remarks made by the couple in The Impotent Husband. The personal here is profoundly expansive and scalable to other issues. In these works I see the interrelated, societal questions of the last century that persist to the present-day, especially in regards to the environment, gender, and of course, health. These methods of seeing—from above-the-skies views of middle America to the inner cavities of the heart—represent the possibilities of cinema in sensing and perceiving the large through the small, and vice versa. Through these moving images a vast range of health concerns are encompassed and presented from the global to the microscopic. As one of the quotes in Dr. Gaycken’s talk goes—public health films pave the way for us to “think globally, act locally,” a well-known theme of the current environmental movement.

My excitement for the collections was amplified by my attendance at the Orphan Film Symposium, which took place virtually in late May of this year. The symposium centered on the themes of water, migration, and climate, and featured several NLM AV collections. It was another chance to put a face to many names connected with NLM History of Medicine Division projects, namely Dr. Jennifer Peterson of Woodbury University, whose Medicine on Screen essay is scheduled for publication in September 2020, Sarah Eilers, manager of the Historical Audiovisuals Program and again, Dr. Oliver Gaycken. In the Darkening Day presentation, these three experts articulated the global health issues represented by environmentalist pieces through selected clips from Countdown to Collision and Sources of Air Pollution, films sponsored by government agencies in and around the middle of the last century. The films’ themes mirror those seen in a 1970 exhibit staged by NLM—titled The Darkening Day—which emphasized the threats of water and air pollution.

Infographic describing NLM historical audiovisual collections: 30% uncataloged, 70% cataloged, 350 titles digitzed.From a distance, and through the eyes of my family and close acquaintances as I talked about my new job and responsibilities, I experienced the difficulties of absorbing and explaining the vastness of the audiovisual collections at NLM. I found the infographic of the Library’s evolving audiovisual digitization efforts helped visualize to myself and others what exactly it is that I do for a living, which can be hard to summarize in plain terms. Visuals such as these also make it easier to advocate for the increased access of such collections, which remain hidden in plain sight—a familiar issue to the world of archives. Though the NLM boasts the largest collection of audiovisual material related to medicine in the world, 30% are uncatalogued and therefore hard to access. An even smaller fraction are digitized and available to view online (about 400+ titles). A combination of in-person visits and correspondence with AV staff are necessary to view the access copies that remain on-site.

And that is an inescapable lament in the current scenario we are all in together; the inability to access the physical collections. Part of what draws many archivists to their work is an appreciation of the reality and the physical presence of historical materials, even when affixed to modern, digital modes of viewing. A digital archivist works across a wide range of media, converting formats for preservation and access. While technology increasingly allows remote access to digital storage media, at the end of the day, all information has a physical presence. I am missing getting to know the collections and their storage spaces through conducting manual film and analog video inspections and meeting the challenges we archivists face when encountering decay and deterioration. I am eager to get to the core of my preservation work when the time is right, but for now, I continue to search and become mesmerized by what is available on-line thanks to the NLM Digital Collections, the LocatorPlus holdings catalog, and of course, the trusty NLM YouTube page, where NLM film and video collections can be browsed. The start of a new position during a global health event has reinforced one of the reasons why I chose to enter the archives field in the first place—to preserve memories in the hopes that bad events never happen again. It may be an impossible effort as error-prone as we humans are, but memory institutions such as the National Library of Medicine offer that possibility to future generations.

An informal portrait of a young woman with dark hair outdoors.Danielle Calle is the Audiovisual and Digital Preservation Librarian in the Preservation and Collection Management section at the National Library of Medicine. Danielle is a fellow in the Pathways Recent Graduates program for new staff.

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