UT Arlington to break ground on $1 million cold storage facility for photo archives

08/11/2014 12:48 PM

08/11/2014 1:06 PM

It was a decade ago when a whiff of vinegar on the sixth floor of UT Arlington’s Central Library set off alarm bells for the keepers of the special collections, a vast resource for North Texas history.

That acrid odor meant just one thing: Some of the collections’ closely guarded film negatives were deteriorating right under their noses.

The discovery triggered a campaign to research, design and find funding for what officials considered the only logical solution — a cold storage facility.

This week, the project breaks ground on a $1 million restructuring of the library basement to create a 680-square-foot vault cooled to 38 degrees in perpetuity.

The vault will house the collections’ current holdings of 5 million negatives and leave room “for more than minimal growth,” said Brenda McClurkin, now head of special collections. Her nose was among the first to notice the telltale vinegary odor at the library.

The smell is a byproduct of the breakdown of acetate film. It releases acetic acid, the key ingredient in vinegar and the source of its odor.

“As those negatives were retested over a period of several years, we could see that the degradation was advancing,” McClurkin said. “Degradation previously found in 1930s and 1940s vintage film negatives was spreading into early 1950s-era negatives. A growing number were in critical condition, needing immediate cold storage.”

Film negatives start deteriorating after about 50 years, but the planned storage vault should extend their lives to around 450 years, she said.

The University of Texas at Arlington project has been awarded $300,000 by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Funds have also come from several foundations as well as from the library and the university.

Construction is set to finish next year, and then the facility will undergo six to 12 months of empty-shelf operation to test the cooling and monitoring systems, officials said.

Cold storage is not a new idea. Major universities, museums and other institutions have built refrigerated facilities for preserving negatives, photo prints, documents, artwork and other materials for posterity.

The Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth built a 2,900-square-foot cold storage facility as part of an expansion of the museum building from 1999 to 2001. The storage is divided into two main sections with two different temperatures, said John Rohrbach, the museum’s senior curator of photographs. About 250,000 items are currently chilled.

The 600-square-foot “cold room” stays at 20 degrees and houses all of the plastic film negatives and a type of color prints. The 2,200-square-foot “cool room” is kept at a relatively balmy 60 degrees to preserve the main part of the museum’s photo collection — mostly black-and-white prints along with certain color prints.

A small vestibule between the two refrigerated rooms allows for negatives retrieved from the cold room to warm up without creating condensation.

The cool room also holds glass plate negatives, which can be damaged by subfreezing temperatures, Rorhbach said. But he expects that the cold room will preserve its negatives for close to a millennium.

“As institutions recognize the value of cold storage, they’re doing it,” he said. “But they’re expensive systems. They’re built on collection needs and financial capabilities.”

Founded in 1974, UTA special collections is a trove of photographs, family papers, maps and many other materials that help document more than 150 years of North Texas history. Its first photography collection, of the works of Basil Clemons, was donated in 1985.

In 1987, the collections became the official repository of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, which has donated about 4 million negatives that will occupy most of the new vault.

Other negatives earmarked for cold storage include the W.D. Smith Collection of images of historic Fort Worth buildings and architecture, and J.W. Dunlop’s anthology of Arlington images dating to the late 1800s, said Rebecca Bichel, dean of UT Arlington Libraries.

But she also holds hope for the negatives severely damaged by “vinegar syndrome” and currently rendered unusable. As is the hope in cryogenics, cold storage of film negatives could suspend deterioration for centuries as science hunts for a cure.

“We want to preserve with the hope that as techniques continue to develop that we can recover more images,” Bichel said. “Who knows what technological capabilities we will have in 10 years, even 50 years?”

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