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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Sources:

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

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