Burn It Down: Finding Nitrate Film in the Archive

Written by Casey Swank, Graduate Assistant

The archivists and graduate assistants here at the Albert Gore Research Center have a running joke: if things in the archive start going south, just burn it down (truly, we ARE kidding). Little did I realize at the time how real that saying would become when I started working on the Robert Alexander Papers a couple weeks ago.


Robert Alexander

Robert Alexander served in the 17th Photo Intelligence Detachment of the Army Air Forces/Corps during World War II and was stationed in Calcutta, India, from the end of 1943 through 1945. In 2003, he donated a small collection to the Gore Center that included correspondence, diaries, an autobiography, and photographs that related to his military service.
The photographs and negatives were originally digitized in 2003, but they were scanned as low-resolution JPEG files rather than high-resolution TIF files. Sarah Calise, Political and Regional Collections Archivist, asked me to re-scan Alexander’s photos and negatives at a higher quality for both preservation and access. At the time, this seemed like a quick assignment to tide me over until after Thanksgiving break when we could sit down and determine my next big project.

I methodically scanned the images that were stored in individual paper envelopes before moving on to the hardcover binder filled with print and negative strips. The strips were stored in plastic sleeves, with prints at the front of the binder and negatives at the back of the binder. I scanned the strips as a whole, making sure to capture everything, including the sprocket holes and any text written or embossed along the film’s edges. When I was almost finished scanning the strips, my eyes finally focused on two words printed along the edge of the strip: NITRATE FILM.


I took my first archives class last semester, and we discussed the preservation issues presented by nitrate film. Produced commercially between 1889 and 1951, cellulose nitrate film is unstable and incredibly flammable. As the film decomposes, it releases nitrogen dioxide that can be converted to nitric acid when it mixes with moisture in the film. Nitric acid is highly corrosive and can irreparably damage the film if it is not stored in optimal conditions. Additionally, nitrate film catches fire easily, burns quickly, and releases a poisonous smoke as it burns. The best way to preserve nitrate film is to store it somewhere that can be kept at 50 degree Fahrenheit or cooler with a relative humidity between 30 and 40 percent. Ideally, the safest way to store nitrate film is to freeze it, but many archives do not have the financial or environmental means to do so.

As soon as I read the words NITRATE FILM, alarm bells started going off in my head. Donna Baker, the University Archivist, immediately picked up the phone and called Jonathan Trundle, an associate professor in the Media Arts department at MTSU who specializes in photography. We asked him to help us determine whether or not the nature of the film. We consulted the book Photographs: Archival Care and Management, and it stated that nitrate negative strips were sometimes copied onto safety film with the label “NITRATE” transferring onto the new strip. We believed there was a possibility that none of the negatives were printed nitrate film. However, we still believed it was best to call in an expert like Trundle.


He inspected a number of negative strips pulled from different parts of the collection, and he also looked some of the digitized images. Based on the texture of the film and the time period in which the images were captured, he believed that there was a strong possibility I was indeed working with nitrate. There was only one way to know for certain, though: a burn test. Nitrate film will catch fire and burn rapidly; safety film (which replaced nitrate film in the 1950s), on the other hand, will melt slowly. I cut off a few small strips of run off film to test from some negatives that did not contain any images. Baker, Trundle, myself, and the other graduate assistants went outside to conduct the test. I held the strips with a small pair of metal pliers while Trundle used a lighter to ignite the film.

The strip immediately caught fire and burned down to the pliers. We tested a few different strips just to make sure this reaction wasn’t a fluke (and because it was fun), and we quickly realized that I was definitely dealing with an unstable, highly flammable collection of nitrate film. So, how do we care for such a collection?

We determined that Robert Alexander’s physical image collection should no longer be stored in the stacks along with all of our other collections because of the threat it poses to their safety and integrity. For now, we will isolate it in a storage cabinet on the other side of the archive’s fire doors. I have since finished scanning all of the negatives as high-resolution images, so we have digital copies of every image should something go wrong with the physical collection. I rehoused the images into paper envelopes so that any nitrogen dioxide released will not be trapped and speed up decomposition. Baker is currently determining the Gore Center’s options for requesting funding to purchase a cold storage unit, but there is a chance that we may have to dispose of the collection entirely. It poses a threat to the entire archive if we cannot acquire the means to store it correctly, and the digitized images ensure that the historical content of the collection would not be lost entirely.


Moving forward, Trundle will help us review our photo collections to determine if any of them also contain previously-undetected nitrate film. If you have not reviewed your photo collections recently or are unsure of what it contains, conduct a thorough inventory and consult with an expert in the field. You might save your archive.


Ritzenthaler, Mary Lynn and Diane Vogt-O’Connor. Photographs: Archival Care and Management. Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2006.

Posted in collections, preservation, regional | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Reflecting on the MT Lambda Exhibit

Written by Alissa Kane, Graduate Assistant

Warning: Some of the content in this blog post and the exhibits contain hateful speech and descriptions of violence toward LGBT+ people.

I am grateful that I have the opportunity to work for the Albert Gore Research Center because they highly encourage their Graduate Assistants to pursue projects in all areas of public history, not just archives. Early on, I indicated to Sarah that I had an interest in curation; that same day I was assigned a project to create exhibits on the history of MT Lambda, an LGBT+ group on MTSU’s campus. This October was the 30th anniversary of MT Lambda’s establishment, and they wished to create an exhibit commemorating the many experiences of this group. I was thrilled to be put on a project relating to this because, as public historians, we need to work hard at telling everyone’s story.

Walking into the first planning meeting for the exhibit, I didn’t know what to expect. I had never been a part of putting an exhibit together and I was nervous, but also incredibly excited. From this meeting I learned that I would be choosing the objects and documents to put on display, and that I would also be writing text panels to interpret these items. Joshua Rigsby, who is the LGBT+ Program Assistant at Intercultural & Diversity Affairs, had been a member/president of MT Lambda when they attended MTSU. Joshua and Donna became the people I touched base with while planning these exhibits. Joshua knew the most about MT Lambda’s history, while Donna helped me with the fabrication of the exhibit displays.


Alissa Kane with the MT Lambda exhibit on display at the Albert Gore Research Center in Todd Hall 128. Photograph taken by Sarah Calise.

There were a total of three exhibit spaces, and Joshua laid out what they wanted each case to cover thematically. It was my job to choose what went into each case. As I was rummaging through the MT Lambda collection looking for items and documents to put on display, I was struck by how much hate the group was receiving and how recent it was. As I was searching for newspaper articles for the Gore Center exhibit (which focused on print media) I was blown away by the amount of homophobia that was present at the time. A quote from one of these articles is on prominent display at the Gore Center exhibit and it reads, “God knows I would rather have both of my arms cut off than be gay.” This quote was from a Sidelines article published in 1993, only five years after MT Lambda’s founding. There are many more examples of hateful articles on display at the Gore center, but there are also articles displaying triumphs such the group’s founding, and a march for rights in Washington, D.C.


MT Lambda exhibit at One Stop. Photograph taken by Alissa Kane.

The second exhibit space at the MT One Stop tells the story of the Uniform Equality Committee (UEC) and their fight to have MTSU include sexual orientation in their non-discrimination policy. One of the cases at this location contains testimony from students and other people in support of amending the policy. Some students spoke of fearing for their lives due to the intensity of harassment they were enduring. Some spoke of being afraid to come out because of the hatred they were seeing towards LGBT+ people in general. Some people were LGBT+ allies who wanted those within the community to be equal and feel supported. The non-discrimination policy eventually passed in 2001, six years after the formation of the UEC. In 2009, gender identity/expression was added to this policy as well. This was not met with nearly as much contention as the 1995 effort.

The third exhibit space was located at James E. Walker Library. This exhibit space covered MT Lambda’s history and the many events they have hosted since the group’s founding. One story that impacted me from this exhibit space was the story of Matthew Shephard, who was an LGBT+ college student at the University of Wyoming in 1998. Matthew was 21 when he was brutally attacked, tied to a fence and tortured. He died from his injuries five days later. As a result of his death, protest for LGBT+ rights erupted throughout the United States. Matthew Shephard’s mother, Judy, was a guest speaker at MTSU for MT Lambda’s annual Spring Out! event. This October was the 20th anniversary of Matthew’s death. Much more recent events, such as the Pulse night club shooting in Orlando, cast a dark shadow and make us question how far we have really come.

Our main goal in creating these exhibits was to show that LGBT+ students at MTSU have seen this hatred, have lived through it, and have had to overcome it. The LGBT+ community has seen great triumphs in working toward equality, like the 2015 United States Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges that declared protection for same-sex marriages under the 14th Amendment. Times have changed for the better since 1980s, when this group was first founded, but achieving true equality is an uphill battle, even today. All we can do is hope and work towards a better future.

See the slideshow below for images of the exhibit at Walker Libary:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Posted in exhibits, university | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Meet Our FOUR New Graduate Assistants

This year the Albert Gore Research Center welcomed four new graduate assistants from the Public History department. These graduate assistants are vital to the operation of our archive. They conduct everyday tasks, like processing, reference, exhibit development, digitization, and preservation. The Gore Center also provides them with a laboratory learning environment, so they can prepare themselves for successful careers as future public historians and archivists. Learn more about each of these wonderful students below!

20180926_132316 (1)

Front to back: Marley Abbott, Quinlan Odom, Casey Swank, and Alissa Kane.

Marley Abbott was born in Nashville, but moved around a lot growing up. She lived overseas and attended TEN different schools before she graduated high school! She received her B.A. in History with a minor in English Literature from University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Due to her travels, Marley visited many museums and historic sites during her youth, which led her to study public history here at MTSU. “Being able to surround myself with real, physical artifacts and places…is what made me realize that working in a museum would be a dream come true.” She is ready to share her passion for history with the world! Marley’s currently researching and curating an upcoming exhibit on Albert Gore, Sr.

If she could interview any historical figure it would be Oscar Wilde, her favorite writer. After reading Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young, she would ask him what he would advise the youth of today given the chance (bonus points if he did it in the form of one of his famous quips). She also desperately wants to know if the wallpaper was really that ugly?

Quinlan Odom was born in Virginia, but spent most of her childhood in Florida. She received her undergraduate degree in History from MTSU. This is her second year as a master’s student in public history, and she comes to the field interested in bettering the lives of others. She said working at the Gore Center has shown her how archival work can be vital to communities. “I love the idea of archives being centers for community action and empowerment.” She is currently developing an exhibit display for MTSU’s homecoming festivities, so be on the look out for that this October!

Quinlan would love to interview Anne Boleyn, her problematic history fave, about the religious changes she experienced during her lifetime. What influenced her actions, considering her love for Henry VIII?

Casey Swank is from York, Pennsylvania and received her bachelor’s degree in social studies education from Millersville University in May 2015. She moved to Murfreesboro a year ago in order earn her master’s degree and pursue a career as an archivist. This past summer, Casey interned at Sgt. Alvin C. York State Historic Park in northeastern Tennessee where she processed the Sgt. Alvin C. York Papers and the Gracie L. York Papers, as well as gave guided interpretive tours of the York home. Upon graduating, she hopes to find a job as either a processing archivist or as an educational specialist for an archive.

If Casey could interview one historical figure, either living or dead, she would choose her favorite Beatle, George Harrison. Her #1 question would be “How did you manage to deal with such an extreme level of fame and yet live such a spiritual and private life after the breakup of the Beatles?”

Alissa Kane is originally from Frankenmuth, Michigan. She received her undergraduate degree in History with a minor in Public History from Saginaw Valley State University. The areas of public history that interest her most are collections management and curatorial work. Alissa is currently developing an exhibit for the Gore Center’s research room on MT Lambda. The student organization is celebrating their 30th anniversary this year, and they are the oldest LGBT+ higher education student organization in the state of Tennessee.

Alissa would like to interview Queen Elizabeth I, and she would ask, “How did it feel to be such a boss woman in a heavily patriarchal society?”

Now that you “know” our graduate assistants, feel free to stop by and say hi! Remember to follow us on Facebook and Twitter to see what our graduate assistants are up to during the academic year. We look forward to helping you research and preserve the past!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

My Summer at the Gore Center

Written by Mary DePeder, Intern

It’s my last week as the Bart Gordon Papers intern this summer and that is certainly cause for a touch of melancholy. As MTSU revs up for another semester with students moving into dorms, milling around campus, and Halloween decorations slowly inching their way onto store aisles, I think it’s safe to bid summer and Gordon adieu. When I began in May as the Gordon Papers intern I had very limited hands-on archival experience and even less experience working with congressional collections. I was charged with two main objects: to continue the folder level inventory of the Bart Gordon collection and create a digital humanities project based on the collection. I could not have imagined at that point in time where these two seemingly straightforward directions would lead me. Whether stumbling upon unique archival finds or cruising east toward Oak Ridge, TN for exhibit research, this summer was certainly one for the books and one that has given me the opportunity to put my archival theory knowledge to work.


Inventorying the Bart Gordon Papers.

Sorting through stacks of constituent mail early on in my internship proved an exciting and memorable feat. While pausing occasionally to read over interesting snippets of letters I found two surprising items: letters to Congressman Gordon from members of my family. One dated from October 2008 was from my mother and her class of fourth graders. At the time, my mother was teaching her students about endangered animals and one of the solutions drummed up by her class to take action against this was notifying their local representative. So, attached to my mother’s initial letter to Congressman Bart Gordon were 30 musings of nine-year old Black Fox Elementary students on animal conservation.

MD Grandparents letter

Letter from Congressman Bart Gordon to my grandparents.

Then, amazingly, I found a second letter from Gordon addressing my grandparents on their concerns of the raising gas prices in Murfreesboro, TN in 2009. Together, these letters, while reflective of so many constituent letters addressed to Gordon on issues relating to the daily comings and goings of Middle Tennessee life, were incredibly valuable to me as a beginning archivist.

When I wasn’t inventorying the Gordon Papers, a significant amount of my internship was spent researching and creating my digital humanities project. Already drawn in by the allure of Oak Ridge’s history as a secret city and passionate about environmental issues, the project slowly came into focus. And, as an added bonus to investigating a city close by this meant Project Archivist, Sarah Calise, University Archivist, Donna Baker, and I could ditch the brick and mortar for a day and road trip it to Oak Ridge to explore. Music playlists, historical research, and good company make for an eventful day adventure.


At the X-10 Graphite Reactor in Oak Ridge.

In tracking the history of Oak Ridge from 1942 up until today I was able to utilize several of the Albert Gore Research Center’s collections and create a larger narrative of the city’s history. Working primarily with congressional collections for this project has broadened my understanding of how political collections can be used for intersectional work. This concept was also crucial throughout every step of my inventorying process. As a whole, the internship proved to be both a challenging and a rewarding undertaking.

You can learn more about internship and volunteer opportunities at the Gore Center on our website: http://mtsu.edu/gorecenter/opportunities.php 

Posted in political collections | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Archiving the Gore Center’s Website through the Wayback Machine

Written by Sarah Calise, Archivist

Hopefully, you’ve heard the latest news–we have an updated website: mtsu.edu/gorecenter. MTSU’s department websites were recently switched over to a content management system with unified style and formatting, so now we all truly belong to one True Blue team! For any of you who might catch some nostalgia for the old website, have no fear because the Wayback Machine is here!


What’s the Wayback Machine? In short, it is a digital archive of the World Wide Web created by the Internet Archive. Launched in 2001, the Wayback Machine allows users to archive snapshots of websites across time. It also revisits sites on occasion and will archive a newer version.

According to the database, website pages from the Gore Center’s old URL “gorecenter.mtsu.edu” were saved 55 times from 2005-2018. Here’s what our website looked like on October 29, 2005:


This website looks fairly dated according to today’s standards and technology, doesn’t it? You can visit our 2005 archived website here: https://tinyurl.com/yap2fexy. You will notice you can click around and still visit many of the linked pages. This site has minimal graphics and color compared to the second version of our website that launched in early 2012 and closed in 2018. Here’s what it looked like on February 5, 2012:


Much of the content of the 2012 site was similar to 2005, but we certainly changed up the style and utilized more accessible fonts. You can explore this archived website here: https://tinyurl.com/y7v37h2x.

You may be asking, “that’s cool, but what’s the point of the Wayback Machine?” For one, it’s just fun. It is truly amazing how much technology and website styles have changed since the Internet became more commonplace. At the Gore Center, we could use it for our own institutional records to see how we described or promoted things online in the past. Some scholars use it for research; I used it during graduate school when I was researching Star Wars fanzines and fan fiction from the 1990s and early 2000s. Journalists or lawyers might use the Wayback Machine for accountability, evidence, or older news stories.

We hope our new website offers a more user-friendly experience. If not, let us know!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Meet Our Intern!

The Gore Center is happy to introduce Mary DePeder, our Bart Gordon Papers intern for this summer! During the spring semester, the Gore Center held a nationwide search for a graduate student in public history and archives to help process the congressional papers of former U.S. Representative Bart Gordon. Like many congressional archives, it is a rather large collection (over 650 boxes), so we hope that Mary can help inventory a significant chunk of the collection to make the important information within the boxes more accessible to the public. She will also be working on a digital humanities project using the Bart Gordon Papers, so stay tuned. That being said…let’s meet Mary!


Mary poses in the stacks with the infamous Bart Gordon Wheaties cereal box!

Mary is originally from Chicago, Illinois, but she has spent most of her life right here in Murfreesboro. She received her Bachelor’s degree in English with a minor in History from MTSU. She is currently enrolled in MTSU’s Public History program, where she concentrates on archival management.

What are your research interests? Currently, I’m interested in community archives, women’s, and LGBT history. This summer I will be writing my master’s thesis on class and generational tensions in the lesbian homophile movement, the Daughters of Bilitis.

What do you do for fun? Any free time I have–while in school and working full time–I love spending with my partner going to drive-in movies, hiking, or canoeing. But with my current hectic schedule, nap time with my dog and cat are high up there in the fun category.

What interests you about congressional archives? I enjoy tackling new challenges in areas I’m not yet familiar with. I have been told that congressional collections are “magnificent beasts,” so that sounds right up my alley.

What are you looking forward to during your internship? I’m most looking forward to gaining hands-on archival experience, and learning more about local political history.

What are your future career aspirations? I am interested in anything related to archival or library work. Currently, I work with the Nashville Public Library and absolutely love it. I would love to continue on in that field and one day work for their Special Collections department. If we’re talking pipe dreams, however, I would love any opportunity to work at an LGBT archive.

Look out for updates this summer from Mary on processing the Bart Gordon Papers! And the Gore Center would like to give a special thank you to Bart Gordon, who makes this internship possible!


Image | Posted on by | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Tennesseans Respond: Poor People’s March of 1968

Written by Sarah Calise, Archivist

WARNING: Some of the archival documents featured in this post contain racist language and beliefs. 

When civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in April 1968, he and fellow activists were planning the Poor People’s March, which comprised a tent city (called “Resurrection City”) on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. intended to influence Congress and put our nation on the path to achieving economic justice: the idea that each person should be free “to engage creatively in the unlimited work beyond economics, that of the mind and the spirit.” The march occurred under the larger umbrella of the Poor People’s Campaign, an initiative the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) created in December 1967 to address issues that particularly impacted impoverished communities, such as access to healthcare, affordable housing, and living wages. Thousands of people–from all different backgrounds–participated in the march and tent city from May 12 through mid-June.


Demonstrators on the National Mall. Oliver F. Atkins Photograph Collection, George Mason University. Photo © SEPS

During this time, Tennesseans wrote to Senator Albert Gore, Sr. and expressed their views on the protest. Gore’s reply respected the people’s right to protest and “petition their government.” He agreed to meet with any and all Tennesseans among the marchers, and promised he would “give careful consideration to their requests.”

This response from Gore surely upset many of the citizens who wrote to him. Most of the constituent letters housed in the Gore’s Senate Papers shared negative and racist views of the Poor People’s March. Common beliefs from these people insisted that the marchers disgraced the country, were “lazy no good parasites,” and were going to take away rights from the majority (white Americans). Despite the diversity of the marchers, many of Gore’s constituents targeted black people in these letters. One letter stated, “I feel that this country will eventually be taken over if not already by the negro race….as a white person I am disgusted with our country.” Below is a representative sample of the letters opposed to the Poor People’s March. (Click each image to view larger)

There were a few letters from Tennesseans that sympathized with the march’s cause, and urged their representatives to support actions that would help poor Americans. Loren Houtman from Greenesville, Tennessee wrote letters to both Senator Howard Baker and President Lyndon B. Johnson on May 25, 1968 (Gore was copied on these letters). She was particularly concerned with hunger in schools, especially after watching a CBS television program earlier in the week. While the opposition saw the marchers as a “disgrace” to the United States, people like Houtman thought outrage should be directed toward the need for such a protest in the first place. She stated, “We should hang our heads in shame for allowing hunger to exist in our wealthy nation!”

Charles Johnson, of Knoxville, agreed with this sentiment in his letter to Senator Gore dated May 22. He wrote, “It seems that this great nation, wealthy beyond the dreams of history, can do better for its poor than it has done in the past.” Johnson believed in increased funding for food stamp programs, Head Start, Model Cities, and other Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) projects. Below are the letters from Houtman and Johnson. (Click each image to view larger)

The Poor People’s March resulted in a few improvements for school lunches, food stamps, and the Head Start program, but, ultimately, many of the movement’s leaders considered it a failure.

Today, 50 years later, there has been a revival of the Poor People’s Campaign. At the time of this blog’s posting, there were demonstrations being held across the nation, including Nashville. You can read more about the current movement in this article from The Nation.

Posted in political collections | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment