-Contributed by Arlie Belliveau
After all the paperwork, my passport is stamped, I’ve crossed the border and started my Student Internship with the Center for the History of Psychology in Akron, Ohio. During my one-month internship, I will be working with the CHP’s Moving Image collection, which includes more than 5,000 titles. I find the prospect incredibly exciting, as my Masters thesis research centered around the Micromotion films of scientific managers and industrial psychologists Frank and Dr. Lillian Gilbreth. I was able to work with a selection of their film collection, which had been digitized in 2006 by the National Film Preservation Foundation. That research would not have been possible without that digitization effort. And so, my plan at CHP is to assess the film collection, preserve the canisters at greatest risk of deterioration, and digitize (and make publicly available) whatever I can.
And so, armed with my archive pencil, the National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF) Guide to Film Preservation, and a positive attitude, I arrived to find a little workstation set up right in the middle of it all.
I began by making a list of the materials I need: cotton and latex gloves, a soft cloth, cleaning solution, plastic archival film canisters and cores (or reels), a film splicer and splicing tape, film marker, leader tape, a reel to reel rewinder, A-D testing strips to measure acetate decay, and a film shrinkage gauge.
I found an old rusted 16mm film splicer on the currently unused second floor of the new archives building. Having used a similar splicer before, I was reasonably sure that I could take the machine apart and get it working again. And so, after making sure that the splicer was a tool and not an artifact, I spent the morning doing just that.
I also began testing a sample of films from the stacks with dates ranging from the 1930s to the 1970s. Why did I perform these tests, you ask? Well, let me tell you a little of what I learned about the nemesis of 16mm acetate film: vinegar syndrome!
Acetate decay (also known colloquially as vinegar syndrome) is a huge problem for film archives. As the chemicals that hold the plastic base and emulsion gel oxidize over time, the materials release a vinegar gas (hence the nickname) that can infect neighboring artifacts. Worse yet, as the gas escapes, the film plasticity, shape, size, strength, and lubrication degrade. Film can become warped, brittle, and covered in mold. Images become unrecognizable, emulsion can flake off, and if there is even 1% film shrinkage, the perforated holes on the side of the film will not line up with the projector’s sprockets, and the film becomes unplayable.
I do not want to let this happen! According to the 2006 A-D Strips User’s Guide acetate deterioration generally begins after a film is 50 years old. So my plan is to select and test some of the older films in the collection, move the ones that are showing signs of acetate decay to a separate area, and clean the films with a solution that will help slow further damage. I’ll have the results of the first test soon, and I am keeping my fingers crossed that the test strips come back blue (and not green or yellow). Stay tuned for the outcome!