Bomb Shelters, Sex Ed, and Personal Hygiene: A/V Geeks Classic Educational Films at the Hunt Library

The James B. Hunt Jr. Library, lauded for its emphasis on cutting-edge technology and modern design, may be an incongruous venue to screen 16mm educational films--the kind that the kid from the A/V club would bring into your class, along with a projector, in the 1960s.  But librarians at NC State have created a compelling series in which scholars and experts from the community pair with local film archive A/V Geeks to screen these films from the past, in this very modern venue.

Skip Elsheimer is not your typical archivist. The A/V Geeks founder and NC State alumnus stores his nationally known collection of roughly 25,000 16mm films in a converted boarding house behind his Raleigh home. His archive focuses on largely out-of-print educational films that proliferated in American classrooms from the 1930s through the late 1980s, covering everything from sex education to personal hygiene to atom bomb preparedness.

Playing upon its value as both kitsch and cultural documentation, Elsheimer screens this neglected wonderment of film in theaters and less likely places such as museums, nightclubs, and moving school buses. One Friday night each month he even shows them in a stairwell—on the Commons Wall at the James B. Hunt Jr. Library.

A/V Geeks Founder Skip Elsheimer and Dr. William Kimler of NC State's History Department before a screening at the Hunt Library

The “A/V Geeks at the Hunt Library” series turns the library’s NextGen Learning Commons into a pop­-up cinema featuring a thematic program of Elsheimer’s films as well as thematically related films and still images from the NCSU Libraries Special Collections Research Center. Librarians work with Elsheimer to juxtapose historic instruction methods and primary sources against the very modern learning space. They also bring in faculty and researchers from other disciplines to frame the vintage media in its thematic context.

Rare musical instructional films and documentaries of such luminaries as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger screened in September’s “American Folk” program coincided with the International Bluegrass Music Association annual conference in Raleigh. Music Department Professor Will Boone joined Elsheimer for that screening and audience discussion.

In October, “Pets!” covered animal care and behavior instructional films with commentary by Dr. Bernard Hansen, associate professor in the Department of Clinical Sciences at the College of Veterinary Medicine. Elsheimer took advantage of a Friday the 13th in November with “Superstition and Science,” when he and Dr. William Kimler, Director of Undergraduate Programs in History, showed classroom films about the power and danger of science.

Learning and laughing

Prior to each semester, librarians develop a set of themes and connect Elsheimer with researchers from NC State and other nearby institutions who can act as scholar-experts. The hosts then curate a set of short films designed to spark an animated discussion with the audience. Librarians also curate a thematic slideshow of images from the Special Collections Research Center for each show, providing a richer set of media depictions of the topic throughout the 20th century.

At each event, Elsheimer talks about the background of classroom film, how it developed as a pedagogical tool, and how teaching films illustrate the social, economic, and cultural developments of the last century. The scholar-expert talks about the subject itself—from American gender roles of the 1950s to the development of the food pyramid—and how it relates to the film(s) the audience just watched.

A scene from the 1951 Coronet film What to Do on a Date?

The team hopes to entertain an audience, and to unpack the historical meaning of educational and instructional films while contextualizing their implications for modern audiences. It turns out that laughter and critical analysis go well together.

“People understand the concept of an old educational film because it’s parodied so much,” says Elsheimer. “But we’re good at setting it up and also having an expert chime in. I think that helps people really digest it.” 

“These films, for me, are always an educational experience,” Elsheimer continues, “not only for the subject matter, but also the teaching method behind it, and whatever political or social issue was behind the making of the film. It’s phenomenal to hear experts talk about the films. They get at things I have only guessed at.”

A small child bottle feeds a puppy in the undated film Dog Show.

After screening the “Pets!” program, Dr. Hansen and Elsheimer discussed how documentary and educational films have portrayed proper pet care throughout the last century. “I grew up watching 16mm educational films in K-8th grades during the 1960s,” Hansen says. “Being able to watch films of that same genre from the perspective of an adult educator was super fun, and it gave me a new appreciation for both the genius of the early adopters of film in education and for the commercial industry that quickly grew around it.”  

The perfect venue

Right in the middle of the Hunt Library NextGen Learning Commons, the Commons Wall offers a unique, open site for the screenings and discussions. The Commons Wall is an 11x12 ft., Christie Microtiles video screen—one of the library’s five large, high-resolution video screens that students and faculty use for both dynamic and static presentations, visualizations, digital exhibits, and library messaging.  

Audience members sit on the stairs to watch an A/V Geeks film on the Commons Wall.

The screen faces the wide, open stairs between the third and fourth floors, which double as built-in seating. Rather than being resigned to a darkened auditorium, the archival films and images come alive through a serendipitous encounter in a library setting. To Elsheimer, this is one of the most compelling aspects of the series.

“I like the idea of bringing it out into the commons so that people will happen upon it,” he says. “When you have a formalized auditorium setting, the only ones who will see the show are the people who came specifically for it.”  

“The venue is unlike any other,” Dr. Boone reflects. “You're in a library, but you're on the stairs, and you're also at a movie theater. It's the perfect blend of fun and education. The series brings about a palpable sense of community between former students like Skip, current students, and non-students.” 

Dr. Hansen agrees. “I really like the presentation in the relaxed environment of the Commons Wall area. It gives the screening the feel of a campus block party and pulls in a great mix of folks from across the whole NC State community.” 

For Elsheimer, screening films for NC State students at the NCSU Libraries is coming full circle. “I love university libraries in general, because that’s where my interest in all this came from,” he says. “I watched a lot of films at Erdahl-Cloyd when I was at NC State and learned a lot. To be able to bring it back is really great for me.”