Growing up, Skip Elsheimer collected baseball cards, coins, comic books and fossils. As an adult, he would continue to be an ardent collector and de facto historian of educational films — especially venereal disease films.
It started innocently enough: When he was in college, he spent his spare time in a band and began to become more involved in the North Carolina noise scene.
"We all wanted to have an audio/visual component to our show," he said. "I teamed up with some other people to form Wifflefist. We were doing noise and there was always a film component."
What would be Wifflefist's backdrop? "In North Carolina, any government property that is surplus is auctioned off. You can go and bid on things like printing presses, photo copiers and riot gear. Actually, the riot gear is something that I bid on and didn't get. That would have set me down a different course."
What Elsheimer did get was lots of A/V equipment and institutional films. "We shared resources and we would go to the state surplus," Elsheimer said. "We bid on these pallets of equipment. There were TVs, videotape decks, cameras, turntables and a 16mm projector. The projector was a bit of an anomaly, so we tried to look around for some 16mm film."
At a flea market, Elsheimer found a man selling a 16mm film, "Uncle Jim's Dairy Farm." He bought this to test the projector and it worked. The man he bought the film from said that he would be at an auction that week with many more. Elsheimer sent his friends to the auction to bring them back films, and when they came back, they surprised him by buying 500 films for $50.
"As far as collections go, these were some of the best collections ever," he said. "There were films about public health: disease, measles, alcohol, drugs. There were drivers' ed films. Films about delivering babies in the back of cars. These were amazing, and sometimes hilarious."
Things began to change at the concerts: "At some point I realized, these films deserve to be heard, too. So I started showing films in between bands."
Then Elsheimer set up A/V Geeks, which is now a business that licenses the library's content for documentaries and other audio/visual work and converts others' films into digital formats. Its headquarters are in Elsheimer's eight-bedroom former boarding house in downtown Raleigh that he bought once his film collection became too big for his two-bedroom apartment.
Today, the collection stands at more than 24,000 educational films. "Schools were dumping collections to make room for computer labs," he said. "I gained notoreity. People would offer me films if I just picked them up. If I paid shipping, they would send them to me."
Some of the best gems are put on compilation discs and Elsheimer releases them himself or through the distributor Kino. Finding copyright owners and figuring out public domain was described by Elsheimer as a "labyrinth," through which famed archivist Rick Prelinger is his guide.
Elsheimer said of his favorite collections are those films warning of the hazards of veneral disease. "These films talk about the history of sex in the U.S. in the 20th century. We weren't talking about sex, but people were having lots of it. We thought of ourselves as proper people, not having sex before we're married. But no! We're having lots of sex!"
By reading an educational film trade journal, "Educational Screens," which published from 1922 through the 1970s, Elsheimer noticed that educational films were often talked about as being teaching machines, replacing the teacher at the head of the classroom. "There was always the idea that if we could just come up with a machine that could teach kids, we wouldn't need teachers. It went from glass slides to audio recordings to film to video. Then it was computers with CD-ROMs. Now it's the Internet. I'm getting approached now to help stream content for schools over the Internet. Throughout all of this, schools are getting rid of one teaching machine to make room for another one."
He continued, "I think the most effective way to teach somebody is one-on-one, one person teaching another person. Even when showing a film, there has to be somebody there to guide the class, a person. Educational films were very strong, but not by themselves. Teachers have to be involved with the rest of the classroom activity. You show the film, you discuss it, you do some activity around it and show the film again maybe; that's the teaching tool. Usually, though, educational films are shown when somebody is absent. When the film is done, the students put their heads down. The value of it was very poor. That happened with a lot of teaching machines: they're used as a shortcut and not used properly."