Greg Wilsbacher of the Moving Image Research Collections at the University of South Carolina

Greg Wilsbacher of the Moving Image Research Collections at the University of South Carolina
Greg Wilsbacher of the Moving Image Research Collections at the University of South Carolina

Greg Wilsbacher is the curator of the newsfilm collections at the Moving Image Research Collections at the University of South Carolina. He earned his a PhD in British Literature from Indiana University, Bloomington. His major area of focus was late fourteenth century vernacular poetry with a special emphasis on William Langland’s Piers Plowman. Wilsbacher’s dissertation explored the ethical nature of reading medieval poetry within the contemporary setting of the university at the turn of the millennium.  After receiving his PhD, Wilsbacher was a Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of South Carolina’s Department of English.  He taught, “the types of English courses that most faculty teach.” He also served as the Assistant Director of Undergraduate Studies.  Wilsbacher began working at the University of South Carolina’s libraries in 2002. He began at the libraries with the intention of working as a Rare Books Librarian. However, library administrators asked him to take over the Newsfilm Library and begin the task of making the unit into a special collections library.  So, from 2004 to 2009 he served as Director of the Newsfilm Library.  In 2009, Wilsbacher became Curator of Newsfilm Collections at the Moving Image Research Collections (MIRC) when the university reorganized the film archives to reflect the growth of collections beyond newsreels and television news.

After becoming a curator and archivist, he earned a Master’s degree in Library and Information Science from the University of South Carolina. Wilsbacher’s duties as curator include, conducting foundational research on the newsreels, representing the collection in a number of external venues, selecting materials from collections for targeted preservation when funds are made available, and conducting “development activities to either assist administration in the raising of monies to support the unit or to acquire new donations for the unit.” He also maintains, MIRC’s “main online reference catalog and conduct[s] original cataloging for new elements,” in his collection area, provides instructional support to classes as needed, and oversees, “the operations of the 2K/4K scanner at MIRC,” trains others in its use, and “(yes) provide maintenance support for the scanner.”  Wilsbacher also has the responsibility to write grants and when those grant applications are successful has the responsibility of bring either the PI or Co-PI. He also oversees the “object collections” (antique cameras, projectors, etc.). Lastly, Wilsbacher stated, “there is a film handling station in my office that I use regularly – in other words, I’m still prepping, splicing, and repairing film.”

An image from the Fox Movietone Newsreel Collection
An image from the Fox Movietone Newsreel Collection

The University of South Carolina’s Newsfilm Library was founded in 1980 with the donation of the Fox Movietone News Collection. USC, “like Indiana University, has a long history as an important regional educational film library,” and in this way, “has been in the film business since the 1940s.” Since 1980, USC’s archival holdings have increased to approximately six-thousand hours of material, including local television news and commercials, home movies, micro-cinematographic nature films, and fiction and documentary films from the People’s Republic of China. MIRC , like most archives relies heavily on federal grants to fund their preservation projects. MIRC also has, “its own foundation account into which monetary donations are channeled.” The annual interest of its foundation account is used for, “active preservation projects (typically nitrate film preservation).” MIRC’s newsreel library holds, “some 11 million feet of 35mm films.”

Wilsbacher stated the principle challenge faced when preserving newsreels to be conveying to funders and others what is being preserved. Only about 10% of the some eleven million feet of the 35mm films is in the edited form once shown to audiences in theaters. “In some sense, preserving ‘the newsreel’ isn’t a very complicated task.”  The university owns nitrate fine grain master positives of two- hundred and six edited newsreels from the World War II era.  In the late-1970s and early-1980s, the nitrate fine grain negatives were used by Twentieth Century Fox to print acetate duplicate negatives, which the university now owns as well.  These negatives are, “to some extent already preserved.  We know that the acetate won’t last forever unless we find colder storage for it, but…you know, that work is essentially done.” In addition, all two- hundred and six newsreels are available online, “so, access, ‘done’.” The other 90% of the some eleven million feet of the 35mm films is, “where the excitement lies but also where others can get confused.”

According to Wilsbacher,

“Raw camera newsfilm isn’t always easy to watch.  It can be disorienting depending on how the cameraman went about filming the shots.  Really good cameramen could edit in camera and produce on the negative a story needing little editing. But they were the exception, not the norm.  Preserving this type of content requires clear communication with the funding source about the nature of the materials being printed.  At USC we preserve outtake and unused films “as is” without attempting to create something new.  If the film shows five different takes of a businessman talking about the stock market, we’ll preserve all five takes.   If, as we did last year, we decided to make projection prints of a films being preserved we will consider editing the content to create a print that would be enjoyable to a film enthusiast audience.  In one case we opted to make a projection print of one take of a story rather than insisting on two.”

Since Wilsbacher has been working in film preservation, the single biggest change has been, “the meaning of the word ‘preservation’.” In 2004, “the unquestioned gold standard for film preservation was traditional photochemical reprinting onto polyester-based stock.” Even though Wilsbacher was given the job of bringing the Newsfilm Library into the “digital age,” he is still

“saddened by the collapse of the photochemical option. Traditional optical printing practices in the hands of a skilled technician could work wonders with 80-year old nitrate negatives.  Those days are over.  Even when you want a photochemical print as the end product, most shops are scanning to DI and then making a final film out.”

Wilsbacher stated a concern regarding the scanning of negatives to DI:

“We’re still trying to figure out how such new processes are impacting the preservation work.  The DI world has brought with it a new wave of patents and proprietary knowledge, so it is not as easy to get labs to describe in detail the process and equipment used to make preservation elements.  I think, however, we have a right to know what we’re paying for.”

Greg Wilsbacher at work.
Greg Wilsbacher at work.

Wilsbacher curates, “over 8 million feet of nitrocellulose films stock and another 8+ million feet of acetate film,” so from his prespective, there is no “end of film”, and film “isn’t going anywhere.” He does have concerns about equipment but also hopes 3-D printers will make repairing some types of film handling equipment easier in the future. Wilsbacher also believes, “as long as someone makes quality film stocks, we will make polyester preservation prints of high priority films.”  When asked how the end of film will affect his work, Wilsbacher replied that his

“biggest concern lies in the loss of an essentially open work environment where patents didn’t lock down the most basic elements of our jobs.  To be sure, the film world fought these patent fights long ago but we’re facing them again. I think that we have to fight for open-source tools so that we can control the work we do.”

~Megan Brant

Jean-Louis Bigourdan of the Image Permanence Institute

Jean-Louis Bigourdan of the Image Permanence Institute (IPI)
Jean-Louis Bigourdan of the Image Permanence Institute (IPI)

Like a newly donated film, there is much more to Jean-Louis Bigourdan than initially meets the eye.  On the surface, Jean-Louis lives a pastoral life –he lives on a farm complete with sheep and horses.  However, after interviewing him and hearing about his work at the Image Permanence Institute (IPI) in New York, it became clear that Jean-Louis also has a mind for science and art.  Jean Louis’ official title is research scientist, but his job requires a bit more clarification.  He explained,

My primary job is to conduct applied research focusing on providing new preservation strategies for cultural materials, mostly information-recording media such as films, microfilms, photographs, magnetic tapes… This includes identifying a problem, designing a research project to address the problem, developing a proposal and applying for funding, conducting the research, and disseminating findings by providing preservation strategies to museums, archives, and libraries.

Since I started at IPI I was fortunate enough to be able to go from one project to the next, and often dealt with several at the same time. What I do is a mix between conducting experiments, field surveys, data analysis, and providing education. For a number of years, I have also provided guidance to interns who come to IPI through the AMIA and Selznick School of Film Preservation; these internships are designed to provide insights into preservation research; I personally learn a lot from the interns and hope they learn a lot during their stay. All of them have contributed in various ways to the work we do at IPI.

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Jean-Louis has a background in chemistry and photography and has also studied the conservation of photographic materials.  His interest in film preservation began when he took a weeklong workshop on film preservation from Anne Cartier-Bresson.  He feels this broad and varied background has been quite beneficial in his current work, noting that,

I didn’t realize it at first, but in fact, the different parts fit well together to support my current activity. Chemistry, team work in the corporate world, studies in photography, museums and archives experience, studies in conservation and preservation of photographic materials, and the last twenty years or so working at IPI help a great deal to do what I do.

Because of Jean Louis’ extensive work with film, I was particularly interested in his thoughts on the end of film production.  Jean Louis feels that the end of film production makes film preservation all that more vital.  He explained,

[The end of film production] doesn’t mean that film preservation is dead, on the contrary. Film-based collections are numerous, and most importantly are irreplaceable. Today, preserving original film materials is even more critical for a couple of reasons. First, there is so much knowledge recorded on photographic film that reformatting most of it is daunting at least, and most likely an impossible task. Second, in many situations, viewing the original materials will still be the only way to appreciate the material. So, in both situations it is, and will be, an important task to make sure that these original objects survive as long as possible. To contrast that idea, I would say that most have no problem with the strategy, which consists in reformatting magnetic media as a preservation strategy. The old idea of preserving/restoring film using film media will have to be entirely abandoned at some point. People watch movies today in so many formats and venues. But many film collections will still be around if kept properly.

Jean Louis also emphasized the importance of film preservation in the specific context of his work and the work of the IPI.  When asked if he felt that his job might change with the end of film production, Jean Louis responded,

Not really, because as I said above, it is even more important today to do the best we can to preserve film materials, and movies in particular, in their original formats. Regarding film preservation today, my role, and IPI’s role is to make sure that what we have learned during twenty years of research is used, i.e., applied in the field in one form or another. In other words, I don’t think that we have to spend more money on research per se, but rather make a special effort to communicate and develop new tools. That is the idea behind the project I am working on right now. IPI receives funding from NEH to develop a web-based tool for film preservation: www.filmcare.org will be an educational but also a film preservation management tool.

After hearing about Jean Louis’ fascinating work at the Image Permanence Institute and his confidence in the necessity of the continuation of innovative work in film preservation, it would be difficult not to want to get involved.  It is fitting, then, to end with Jean Louis’ excellent advice for aspiring film archivists:

As I say often, preserving film is not only about film. Film archivists are responsible for many other materials, i.e., posters, publications, letters, scripts, stills, DVD, tapes… so the more you learn about other media and how to care for them, the better film archivists you will be.

~Colleen Martin

Newsfilm, Tenite, Home Movies, and More: An Interview with Margie Compton

Margie Compton
Margie Compton, Media Archives Archivist, Walter J. Brown Media Archives and Peabody Awards Collection

Margie Compton is the Media Archives Archivist at the University of Georgia’s Walter J. Brown Media Archives and Peabody Awards Collection.  The archive holds a wealth of important material including several newsfilm and home movie collections and the Peabody Awards Collection, which includes the majority of entries from the beginning of the awards program to the present.  I spoke with her about film preservation problems and the challenges facing the field of moving image preservation in the 21st century.

According to Compton, newsfilm is important both because it serves as a historical record and because it is fairly rare, as many television networks destroyed newsfilm with the advent of videotape in the 1970s and 1980s.  The Walter J. Brown Media Archives is in the process of making its newsfilm collections accessible by digitizing them, breaking digital files down into clips and assigning each clip its own database record, she says.  This digitization project is also necessary due to the plethora of preservation problems facing newsfilm collections.  Compton describes a few of these: minimal information about content on a film’s container, damaging residue from masking tape, and curling of the film and loss of magnetic soundtrack due to storage on tight “pencil wind” spools.

Tenite reels
Reels exhibiting the deterioration of Tenite

Another preservation problem she mentions, and one that she believes is not often discussed, is the deterioration of “Tenite” film reels.  These reels, Compton says, are most often made of grey plastic, are found primarily in home movie collections, and usually hold 8mm, Super8, or 16mm film.  As this type of plastic ages, it exudes a white substance that can discolor or otherwise damage film.  While some people can handle it without issue, Compton explains that others (herself included) experience problems with their eyes, nose, throat, and lungs despite taking appropriate handling precautions.  This type of material also causes financial problems.  Compton cites a dilemma: should the archivist risk a physical reaction in order to determine the film’s content, or should s/he make the film a transfer priority and spend money to preserve it without knowing what it contains?

Moving image archivists face many challenges in the 21st century, and the majority of these issues revolve around digital technology and preservation.  For example, increased use of digital recording devices impacts not only the way in which moving images are captured, but also how they are archived.  Compton emphasizes the importance of a “planned digital infrastructure” to ensure that an archive will have the necessary funding and resources to preserve digital materials and to make them available for use.  She also believes that in addition to trained staff members, a modern archive needs “proper equipment, a budget to do preservation work, IT support to manage the terabytes of digital files created, and to tie that all in to institutional priorities.”

Digital technology has also contributed to the decision of many filmmakers to end their production of film stock.  Since archives transfer content to new film stock as a form of preservation, this decision has broad implications for moving image archivists.  Compton explains this situation with a practical example.  If, she says, an archivist needs to preserve an 8mm film, but 16mm film stock is no longer produced as preservation stock, should the archivist blow the film up to 35mm?  While it is an excellent long-term preservation and access format, the difference between the 8mm and 35mm gauges means the film is no longer being preserved in the way it was originally shot and viewed.  So, she adds, the alternative is to preserve the film digitally, which comes with a new set of challenges.

According to Compton, another change awaiting moving image archivists is an increase in home movie research, an area she believes has only recently been recognized as important in film scholarship.  She says that, “I don’t believe we have yet seen anywhere near the amount of research home movies will eventually engender.  Scholars are looking at large collections of home movies to tease out truths about our modern lives and the fact that so many people captured the same tropes says something about how alike we are, crossing supposed borders of place, space, and time.  The ordinary can become extraordinary when examined, and that examination is being done now.”  In fact, an article in the Athens Banner-Herald (July 13, 2012) describes a home movie from 1917 in the Walter J. Brown Media Archives collection believed to be the oldest surviving footage of Georgia.

Film archivists like Margie Compton are at the forefront of moving image preservation and have the knowledge and skills to preserve history.  While digital technology has caused substantial change in the field, the 1917 home movie clip provides a perfect example of how that change can be for the better.

~Cathy Cooney

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Access is the First Step to Preservation: An Interview with Skip Elsheimer of A/V Geeks

banner2Skip Elsheimer’s interest in film and video dates back to his childhood. As a young man he owned a 16mm projector but could never get it to work. He shot film for school projects but was dissatisfied with the time it took to view his results. “No immediate gratification squashed my motivation” he said in a  February 19, 2013 interview. He had always been a collector of such ubiquitous materials as comic books, coins, stamps, and records. However, in college at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, NC in the 1990s, his interest in collecting reached a more massive scale, both space- and numbers-wise. It happened when he bought six palettes of audio and video equipment at a University of North Carolina Greensboro (UNCG) auction that included U-Matic video decks, an open-reel tape machine, and a working 16mm projector. He was not a stranger to oversized collections at this stage in his life as he had already gotten into collecting large office machinery (copy machines and other discarded tools), but prior to this purchase, film had not been a huge part of his life.

One of the film rooms at the A/V Geeks archive, complete with a former boarder's rose mural.
One of the film rooms at the A/V Geeks archive, complete with a former boarder’s rose mural.

A trip to a flea market netted him a couple of 16mm educational film prints but also, and more importantly, a tip from the seller about an auction that featured quite a few more films. Despite not being able to attend the auction — he had to go to work —  he asked his roommates to go in his place. “I’ll pay you back” he said, and, upon returning home, was greeted by a pile of 500 educational films with subjects ranging from drinking and drugs to driver’s ed and Duck and Cover from the UNCG  Department of Human Resources. It cost him $50.

“Something clicked that these were awesome,” says Elsheimer, and his quest to build the massive 24,000+ educational film collection of A/V Geeks began. “Schools were beginning to make room for the computer lab and dumping films for space” he said, and recounts buying up huge lots of film from educational and other institutional entities all over North Carolina. Soon enough he had acquired most of North Carolina’s otherwise-potentially-doomed-for-the-dumpster collections. As college roommates started getting married, going to grad school, and otherwise moving out of their shared house, Elsheimer realized that if he was going to keep the thousands of films he had amassed, it was time to find them a home. He did, in a former boarding house in Raleigh, NC, where the archive lives to this day.

IMG_2991“I got [the films] for performance in the first place, to show behind bands,” says Elsheimer, noting that his collection was born with the idea that these films – however dated, faded, or forgotten – were still of interest, despite being orphaned by their previous owners. But their interest, he noted, extended beyond a moving psychedelic backdrop for music. Elsheimer started inviting friends over on Sundays for beer and film viewing, a tradition that remains to this day. “I enjoy [watching] them and see enjoyment in others when the watch them,” he said. Prior to his quest to collect and rescue film he had created zines and worked with a record label, two enterprises whose reason for being are to get content to the widest variety of people. Thus, A/V Geeks was born, a film archive based on the idea that, as Elsheimer says, “access is the first step to preservation.”

A view of the A/V Geeks' Flashscan film scanner at work.
A view of the A/V Geeks’ Flashscan film scanner at work.

In order to fulfill the goal of making his 24,000 educational films as accessible as possible, Elsheimer has spent almost two decades becoming a recognized force for reformatting in the world of media preservation. Much of the reason these films are not accessible is because many never made it to consumer friendly formats like VHS, and even if they did, their material may be considered too irrelevant for modern formats. Reformatting equipment is expensive and experience is, too. “I learned the hard way,” said Elsheimer, referring to the fact that his knowledge of the field has put him in demand as a consultant for other archives who are seeking help with their digitization projects. But one of the goals of the work of A/V Geeks is to get as much public domain material as possible on popular media delivery websites like YouTube, The Internet Archive, and Vimeo, to ensure the most amount of views by the widest audience. In 2012 Elsheimer initiated an IndieGoGo campaign to digitize 100 miles of public domain film. He enticed donators with a list of films that he not only thought they would be interested in, but that he was also interested in. “Instead of me raising money to pay the bills I can raise money to digitize what I want to digitize,” he said. As of February 24, 2013, the campaign has raised over $20,000.

IMG_2998A/V Geeks is not only a giant, privately owned educational film archive but also a vendor of digitization services. They offer 8mm, Super8, 16mm, and 35mm reformatting services, as well as a variety of professional and consumer level video formats, including VHS, SVHS, Betamax, Umatic, and 1″ open reel. A/V Geeks also offers digital file reformatting, DVD duplication, and video transcoding to digital media. Elsheimer’s biggest client is the Internet Archive, particularly Geoff Alexander of the Academic Film Archive of North America and Rick Prelinger of the Prelinger Archives. Universities  – his alma matter North Carolina State University and neighboring Durham’s Duke University, among others – have hired A/V Geeks for larger scale reformatting services. While higher-profile vendor activity nets more money than consumer services like home movie digitization, Elsheimer feels its just as important as such activity “imparts ideas about archiving to individuals.” Outside of digitization services Elsheimer puts this belief to practice as the president of the Center for Home Movies.

To further their mission of access, Elsheimer takes treasures from the A/V Geeks archive on the proverbial road. He regularly shows films at Kings Barcade in Raleigh, typically a rock venue, in addition to more (or less) traditional cinema environments. He also packages some of the public domain films into fun, thematic DVD sets, monetizing the content and also giving him something to sell at merchandise tables while touring and on his website. “I think the most important component of preservation is access” he says. “If you aren’t actually doing something to give access to people to make it important or introduce it to the world then you’re not doing preservation in the grand sense. It’s great keeping the original around … but there are ways now to share that information without impacting the original object by putting them online and making them available to someone even in another part of the world. That stuff is really important.” He continues “I could pay to have something preserved and it could sit on a shelf and no one would know, so what’s the point? Spend the time, energy, and money, and cheerlead it.”

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~ Jason Evans Groth

 

IULFA and World Day For AudioVisual Heritage

In 2005, UNESCO, in order to raise awareness of the wealth and significance of A/V materials and collections as documents of tradition, heritage, and culture, as well as to raise awareness of issues regarding preservation and access, declared October 27th as the World Day for Audiovisual Heritage. In the years since, institutions ranging from libraries and archives to cultural centers to A/V professional associations have used this day of consciousness-raising to share and showcase how audio visual media enriches our understanding of history and heritage.

Home Movie Day is an example of how our heritage is expressed through media. Here is an image of an IU football game from the 1950s, taken at the IU Cinema on Home Movie Day 2012.

Last year, for example, The Israel National Commission for UNESCO took October 27th as a day to publicly screen rare and special materials from the repositories of Israeli film archives in seven Cinematheques throughout the country.  The Polish National Audiovisual Institute planned its yearly Culture 2.0 conference around World Day for Audiovisual heritage, with researchers and activists discussing ideas of heritage, media, and cultural literacy.  And the Philippines, the last standing country without a national film archive, released new plans for the National Film Archive of the Philippines, in Manila which, as of this year, has just begun and, in fact, participated in the 2012 Home Movie Day

The theme for this year, which is hosted by the International Association for Sound and Audiovisual Archives (IASA) is “Audiovisual Heritage Memory?  The Clock Is Ticking.” This statement highlights the belief among A/V professionals that the next couple of decades are of critical importance when it comes to preserving A/V materials.  As Mike Casey and Bruce Gordon noted in “Sound Directions: Best Practices for Audio Preservation,” sound archives (and, it could surely be argued, film and video archives as well) “have reached a critical point in their history marked by the simultaneous  rapid deterioration of unique original materials, the development of expensive and powerful new digital technologies, and the consequent decline of analog formats and media.”  In other words – materials are getting older, more outdated, and are harder to fix.

Here at the Indiana University Library Film Archive (IULFA), we struggle with these issues of decay and obsolescence every day.  It’s a challenge that can be particularly poignant and potent when working to preserve and make accessible materials that represent the cultural heritage and history of the area where we live.  Handling unique or rare regionally produced materials such as the Indiana University Audio-Visual Center educational films from the 1940s-1980s is unambiguous evidence of the historical and cultural relevance of audiovisual materials.

Those interested in a sampling of some of the educational materials we have available that deal with the Midwest’s cultural and economic heritage in particular might want to take a look at the following films, digitized and made accessible on the IULFA website.  These represent only a sliver of the Hoosier-centric materials we are currently accessioning, cataloging, preserving, and digitizing, and we plan to highlight some of this films in upcoming blogs, so stay tuned!

Tales of the Rails, 1990

Provides an anecdotal account of the history of the American railroad in the Midwest through personal interviews and historical photographs. Features stories fondly recounted by old-timers who grew up along the tracks in Iowa, and highlights the importance of trains to daily life while capturing their aura of mystery and excitement.

Limestone, 1978

It is impossible to live in Indiana and not be aware of the cultural, historical, and economic significance of the limestone industry. This film, produced by Indiana University’s School of Education, explains and simulates the formation of sedimentary rock, focusing on the importance of limestone as a natural resource.

In The Rapture / The Rapture Family, 1976

“In The Rapture” documents a local production of a traditional black church musical drama portraying man’s struggle to resist the temptations of Satan and follow Jesus.  The companion film features eight members of the “rapture family” discussing the drama’s significance with Dr. Herman Hudson, Dean for Afro-American Affairs, and Dr. William H. Wiggins, Jr., Professor of Afro-American Studies, Indiana University.

New Harmony: An Example and A Beacon, 1971

Traces the history and significance of New Harmony, Indiana, from its communal origins to its contemporary renaissance as an historic landmark.  A must for anyone interested in vernacular architecture and local history.

 

~Josephine McRobbie

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Freezer Project: Film Decay and Media Collections

Over the months of July and August 2012, Indiana University Libraries Film Archive (IULFA) staff began (with only a small amount of foot-dragging!) the ominously-named Freezer Project. For a number of weeks, we’ve been leaving our comfortable desks at 9am each day, in teams of two, to work on inventorying the hundreds of deteriorating 16mm and 35mm films that have been quarantined from the “healthy” films in a large walk-in freezer at the Ruth Lilly Auxiliary Library Facility (ALF). These films run the gamut in content and time period, but it is significant that certain items, such as 1950s regional football games, ethnographic anthropological research in 1970s South Africa, and film and television outtakes and production elements, are unique items that may only exist at the IULFA. Thus, it is all the more important to regain greater physical and intellectual control over these items, so that they may be available for and findable by interested parties.

Indeed, a significant challenge in moving image preservation programs is the storage and care of decayed and deteriorating cellulose film. Cellulose film base, also known as triacetate film base, was introduced in the early

A can of 16mm film exhibiting warping, rust, and other signs of decay.

20th century as an alternative for the highly-flammable nitrate film base (it was thus given the alternate moniker “safety film”). The benefits of this material meant that by the 1950s, cellulose had phase out nitrate in the 35mm format, and would go on to be the most widely used film base, used in gauges ranging from 16mm (for which triacetate has been almost exclusively used since the gauge’s introduction in 1923) to 8mm and Super 8mm.

Archivists have found that this particular type of film base is especially susceptible to shrinking, warping, and brittleness, and at this deterioration process occurs, film becomes more and more difficult to play back, digitize, or even inspect. Due to the highly acidic odor that decayed cellulose film puts off, this particular variety of deterioration is widely known as “vinegar syndrome”. A report by Jean-Louis Bigourdan of the Image Permanence Institute at the Rochester Institute of Technology found that “freshly processed acetate base film can last for several centuries in cold storage.” But the author goes on to warn that “under adverse storage conditions … acetate base decay has been observed after only a few years.” And dealing with items that have lived under such conditions is certainly part of archival work.

The IUFLA, for instance, is home to one of the world’s largest academic film collections, housing over 55,000 items. Because all these films came to the IULFA from a variety of sources, some items are in better shape than others.  Oftentimes, collections were once stored in non-ideal facilities such as the attics or basements of owners, or non-climate controlled warehouses or storage facilities.

Because of this variety in previous storage conditions, all incoming films are checked for vinegar syndrome during accessioning. This is done with the use of A-D strips, small paper strips placed on the film reel which detect the acidity level in the film and demonstrate that level by changing color from dark blue (healthy) to green (decaying) to yellow (significantly decayed). Its a process reminiscent of a 1970s mood ring, something we retro-fetishists at the IULFA can certainly appreciate!

Staff member Asia Harman pulls decayed films from the IULFA’s walk-in freezer.

As mentioned previously, significantly decayed films are quarantined from the “healthy” items and kept in a walk-in freezer at ALF which is kept at a temperature below freezing, until funding is available for preservation reformatting. IULFA staff maintains the stability of the other films by keeping them in the optimal storage conditions of the vault at ALF, which is kept a consistent temperature of 50 degrees Fahrenheit and a stable relative humidity of 30 percent.

Since we began the Freezer Project, we’ve tackled the task of inventorying all of the films in the ALF freezer, bagging similar sizes together in order to create more space, and noting instances of duplicate copies. The process begins with taking films from the freezer (usually in disarray and not properly bagged for an additional level of climate stability) into the vault to slowly warm up to 50 degrees.

The IULFA’s Sean Smalley (left) and Andy Uhrich (right) inventory decayed films

After several hours in the vault, films can be brought into the warmer work area, where they are inspected for title, series, catalog number, barcode, and element (such as “A-roll” or “soundtrack”).  The amount of information on the can itself varies wildly – some cans contain all this information, while others are incomplete, or in a few instances, completely blank. Films are then bagged according to best practice guidelines (or set aside for disposal), and placed back in the freezer, where they will be easily accessible when it comes time to rehabilitate them. The Freezer Project is one of the less glamorous projects at the archives, as it involves handling rusty metal cans filled with foul-smelling acidic film, and wearing rubber gloves and butchers smocks in order to protect oneself from said rusty metal cans filled with foul-smelling acidic film! But this particular project is part of a larger goal of “unhiding collections”, as media collections consulting firm AV Preserve has put it. As they have said, “in order to unhide audiovisual collections they need to be transferred to a state where they can be described and accessed.”

IUFLA staff member Jason Evans Groth emerges from the freezer with films of various sizes.

Though the work is physically demanding and the number of films to inventory and bag was initially quite overwhelming, it’s a feeling of real accomplishment to know that this work will allow the public to find and view these films.

Read the National Film Preservation Foundation’s a PDF “Film Preservation Guide” for more information about film preservation practices and processes.

~Josephine McRobbie with Andy Uhrich