Arlington

UTA’s new 38-degree vault will preserve film negatives 500 years

Brenda McClurkin, head of special collections at the University of Texas at Arlington library, displays an old and cracked film negative in the new storage vault. The library is moving about 5 million historical film negatives into the cold storage vault so they do not become damaged like this one.
Brenda McClurkin, head of special collections at the University of Texas at Arlington library, displays an old and cracked film negative in the new storage vault. The library is moving about 5 million historical film negatives into the cold storage vault so they do not become damaged like this one. Special to the Star-Telegram

Where there’s a whiff, there’s a way.

It’s been a dozen years since a vinegary odor wafting through the University of Texas at Arlington’s special collections library signaled advancing deterioration among its 5 million historical film negatives, windows to North Texas history going back to the Great Depression.

The answer at the time was obvious — a cold-storage vault that would halt the ravages of time and room temperature, extending the lifetime of negatives to 500 years or more.

But making it happen took years of planning, $810,000 in grants and donations, six months of construction and most of the past year testing the vault for temperature consistency and to work out any kinks.

We were in jeopardy of losing our photographic images That was critical.

Brenda McClurkin, head of special collections

“We were in jeopardy of losing our photographic images,” said Brenda McClurkin, head of special collections. “That was critical.”

Things are cool now.

There are three rooms in the library vault space, including a small office for managing use of the frosty collection. The cornerstone is a 940-square-foot vault that maintains a near-freezing temperature of 38 degrees for the most significant preservation storage. An adjoining 480-square-foot “cool room” stays at 64 degrees for photographs, DVDs and other materials that can’t weather the cold.

A year to go

Almost all of the 5 million negatives — including an estimated 4.8 million negatives and 185,000 prints donated from the Star-Telegram archives — have been rolled into the cool room to start the preservation while shelving continues.

The refiling process has been underway for several months and will likely take a year more to finish, said Samantha Dodd, a special collections archivist who was hired in January with that task being her first assignment.

She said that the slow pace is necessary because specially coated boxes are needed to store the negatives. Otherwise, she could be done in two months

“We didn’t have the budget to buy the boxes we needed,” she said. “We have other collections that need supplies.”

The storage facility has a 940-square-foot vault that maintains a 38 degree temperature for negatives, and a 480-square-foot “cool room” that stays at 64 degrees, for photos, DVDs and other materials that can’t weather the cold.

The National Endowment for the Humanities provided the first $300,000 for the vault, and the remainder came from several other foundations.

A photo preservation consultant hired by UTA estimated that 45 percent of the Star-Telegram’s negatives at the library are degrading, said John Robinson, executive vice president of the Amon Carter Foundation, which also donated to the project..

“If that rate of deterioration continues, it was determined that 10 to 20 percent of the film, which is 70 to 90 years old, would become unusable within five to 10 years,” Robinson said. That rate of loss would occur in each subsequent decade, he said.

The Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth has the only other such cold-storage vault in North Texas, Robinson and McClurkin said.

Telltale smell

McClurkin started at the UTA libraries as a historical manuscripts archivist in 2002, and her nose wasted no to time in alerting her to the telltale smell of film deterioration — vinegar. The acrid odor is a byproduct of the breakdown of acetate film, which releases acetic acid, the key ingredient in vinegar.

I said we’ve got to get a handle on this, see what it is and how that we need to deal with this

Brenda McClurkin, head of special collections, upon first smelling vinegar

“I said, ‘We’ve got to get a handle on this, see what it is and how that we need to deal with this,’ ” she said.

Testing the negatives for deterioration started in 2004, and by 2008 the degradation in many negatives from the 1930s and 1940s was becoming critical. “Plus, we were seeing some from the 1950s starting to turn,” McClurkin said.

The special collections staff’s research included visiting cold-storage vaults in California and Canada and at the Amon Carter Museum and the Harry Ransom Center at UT Austin.

It wasn’t difficult getting the library management team on board.

“All we had to do was wheel a box of stinky negatives into the room, and people were going, ‘OK, we believe you,’ ” McClurkin said.

Robert Cadwallader: 817-390-7186, @Kaddmann_ST

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