NARA Photograph of white women and men working as archival catalogers winding through and watching motion picture films

Films of State: Using Government Film

By Sarah Eilers ~

Last week I presented (Zooming, of course) at the “Films of State: Moving Images Made by Governments” conference, cosponsored by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and the University of Maryland’s Program in Cinema and Media Studies. Films of State dove deep into government filmmaking (federal, state, US, and foreign), with a focus on a few key topics including military, diplomacy, parklands, and citizenry.

Films of State graphic with NARA and University of Marlyand logos.

Participants in the conference included scholars who described their own research and their use of film as a primary source, as well as archivists from NARA, who walked attendees through that agency’s vast holdings in selected areas and offered tips for drilling down to the relevant material, whether audiovisual or textual records.

Oliver Gaycken, a core faculty member of the Film Studies Program and the Program in Comparative Literature at the University of Maryland, College Park (and project consultant for the National Library of Medicine’s Medicine on Screen)  helped organize the conference along with Heidi Holmstrom and Audrey Amidon of NARA, who moderated the Using Government Film panel in which I participated. The panel featured speakers from five other institutions who discussed their collections and how researchers engage with the variety of audiovisual content held in government repositories. The panel included representatives from the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Visual History of the Holocaust (based in Vienna, Austria), the Smithsonian Channel, and NARA itself.

I led off the Using Government Film panel with a talk titled “Do You Have That Lobotomy Film? Moving Images at the National Library of Medicine.” The title is a riff on the sustained interest we see from researchers in films about mental health and in particular, the lobotomy as “cure” for mental illness. While this topic is popular, the NLM audiovisual collection includes much more than that, of course, and the panel provided an opportunity to draw attention to the wide range of holdings and current research in the collection.

Text from a film citing a grant from NIMH.

I was able to highlight the filmmaking work of the US Public Health Service, as well as discuss the broader film-collecting activities NLM has always pursued. The NLM collection includes films by medical device makers, advocacy organizations, and even individual scientists and physicians. I showed two clips, one from the 1949 title Hand-Ditching for Malaria Control (a PHS/CDC instructional film explaining how to drain swampy areas and thus remove mosquitoes and larvae) and another from the 1951 film Observations Concerning the Phenomenology of Early Oral Behavior, which examines how babies explore their world by mouthing objects, and communicate joy and distress with mouth movements as well. Made by academic researchers, Observations was supported in part by a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health.

Infant and child development is also a key area of interest for NLM patrons, and one where we’ve collected many titles created by non-government entities. Serendipitously, right before the conference I received a call from Katie Joice of the University of London, who let me know she’d just published an article in the journal History of the Human Sciences that drew heavily on NLM-held films. A timely example of the relevance of the collection to contemporary research.

Screen capture of a journal article.
“Mothering in the Frame: Cinematic Microanalysis and the Pathogenic Mother, 1945-67” by Katie Joice in History of the Human Sciences, 2021

The panel was a good opportunity to demonstrate how NLM collections support scholarly research and also to introduce Medicine on Screen, NLM’s curated portal of unique, rare, and important medical films enriched with contextual information, scholarly essays, and related resources, to interested researchers who might not be familiar with it.

To learn more about the National Library of Medicine’s historical audiovisual collection visit our website and explore Medicine on Screen.

An informal portrait of a white woman in a library.Sarah Eilers is the Manager of Historical Audiovisuals in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.

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