Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Archival Film, A Reel Dilemma

They say nitrate won't wait, but neither will acetate. Although acetate motion picture film isn't flammable, it will deteriorate and eventually become unplayable. To retard the inevitable chemical reactions that cause decay, you must store that film in cold, dry conditions. But what if you've got 5,000 reels of film, like we do at Hoover, and don't have the luxury of a room-sized refrigerated vault?

The ultimate preservation solution is reformatting all the film, transferring the content to a new medium, such as a digital file or videotape. But even assuming that all our 5,000 reels are in good condition (which they are not), we estimate that reformatting would cost millions. Although that might make a walk-in freezer look affordable, cold storage still isn't realistic.

We're left with a modern Solomon's choice. Which handful of reels do we devote our reformatting budget to when we have so many historically valuable ones? As I ponder this, it becomes clear that appraising a collection's historical value does not end once our curators have chosen to add it to our holdings. We archivists have to make an even tougher judgment, from all the films acquired because of their significance, when we choose the few reels to be reformatted.

There's plenty of archival literature about what things to consider in the selection process, including the film's age, uniqueness, condition, and historical importance. But the actual decisions remain the toughest things archivists have to do. Those "life and death" decisions are perhaps what shape us as professionals.

This is nitrate film decay. Acetate film decay isn't as striking, but it too is a killer.

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