Walter Cybulski: Preservationist and Poet

Librarians and poets usually have this in common: a love of the written word and a reverence for the art and literature of the past. A preservationist librarian by day and a poet by night, Walter Cybulski excels in both fields.

When Cybulski came to the National Library of Medicine in 1996, one of the Library’s biggest challenges was transferring troves of valuable information onto microfilm for preservation. As a graduate of the first preservation course taught at the University at Albany, State University of New York, Cybulski was eager to put his skills to work.

Since then, the art of preservation has changed. At NLM, microfilm has been superseded by digital preservation performed with high-quality document scanners.

Cybulski, who manages scanning projects at NLM, finds working with the Library’s treasures, often preserving brittle old books, hand-written journals, or historical posters, both a challenge and a passion.

The Library’s greatest scanning challenge started in 2005 with a pilot project to scan cholera materials by converting images from books, pamphlets, and microfilm into digital files.

Nonstop scanning

The success of that project led NLM to join the Medical Heritage Library Project with the goal of digitizing books and journals documenting the evolution of American medicine from 17th century colonial medicine to 20th century research hospitals. The Library scanned its one-millionth page for the Medical Heritage Library Project in 2011.

Walter Cybulski looks at a book

Walter Cybulski, preservationist and poet

NLM digitized 6,000 volumes from 200 historic American medical journals published between 1797 and 1923. They are now available through NLM’s Digital Collections repository as the Medicine in the Americas collection.

“We had numerous training opportunities, and the administrative staff made sure we had enough people to keep the scanner going non-stop during regular business hours,” Cybulski recalls. “Though it seemed daunting at first, it turned out to be less stressful than we had imagined.”

While scanning has replaced microfilm in the Library’s preservation program, some material on film still exists for which hard copy is no longer available. As a preservation measure, film in the form of camera masters remains in secure storage at Iron Mountain in Boyers, Pennsylvania.

Cybulski manages off-site storage contracts for the vault and conducts the Library’s environmental monitoring program, in addition to managing the ongoing digitization effort—now over 2.5 million pages and growing.

He also serves as the Library’s disaster response chief, an assignment that requires an open mind about disaster response strategies. “Here at NLM it is important that we understand disaster response as a sequence of events that begins with staff safety and hopefully ends without any loss of collection materials. Each event unfolds differently and requires its own combination of informed assessment and decisive action,” says Cybulski. “I like to think that when I leave the building, the collections and all the other materials are safe and secure and available for anybody who wants to use them.”

Through the years, Cybulski has shared his experience by teaching preservation courses at the Catholic University of America and the University of Maryland and publishing papers about preservation.

Preservationist plus poet

In his life away from the NLM, Cybulski is a published poet. He has nurtured this passion since the 1970s.

Cybulski’s poetry has been in many journals including America, Propago, Eyecatcher, and Rivanna. His latest book of poetry, Nothing to Say and Saying It, published in 2015 by Black Kettle Press, drew accolades from readers and reviewers online. “If American poetry is one of your passions, add this volume to your shelf alongside Williams, Bishop, Berryman, Oppenheimer. Cybulski will confirm your love of poetry.” And this: “Plain spoken and brilliant, these poems address the abyss of time with a combination of sorrow and jauntiness.”

Poetry and preservation are linked in history, Cybulski notes. “I always think of the great Polish poet Czesław Miłosz, who once ran across a field under enemy machine-gun fire with a copy of T. S. Eliot’s Wasteland in his pocket. He was working on a translation into Polish. I’ve never met a poet or reader of poetry who wasn’t concerned for the fate of both print and electronic publications.”

Grace Cavalieri of the Washington Independent Review of Books wrote of Cybulski, “He’s basically a serious historian….Cybulski keeps the American dream alive.”

We could also say that he keeps the history of medicine alive, too.

Thanks, Walter Cybulski!

By Tom Conuel, with assistance from Kathryn McKay