Does it Smell Like Vinegar in Here? Protecting and Preserving Film, Part 2

Film with vinegar syndrome.This is the second blog post in a four part series about the Department of Neurosurgery Records and issues archivists confront when accessioning collections. Select the following links to see Part 1Part 3, and Part 4.

Like most processing archivists, I have seen, touched, and housed items from the mundane (brochures, reports, and meeting minutes) to the peculiar (human hair, dental x-rays of rotting teeth, and a Ku Klux Klan luncheon menu serving koffee and kukumber sandwiches). Fluxkits, from the Fluxus Movement of the sixties and seventies, win for the most unexpected items I have found while processing a collection. These plastic kits were marketed through the mail and consisted of a wide range of objects made by artists. The Fluxkits in the collection I processed include but are not limited to a Fluxus music box, interactive Fluxus games, Fluxus food (seeds), Fluxus snow (crumbled Styrofoam), a Fluxus medicine cabinet, and a “Mystery Flux Animal.” The latter was packaged in a glass jar. Whatever fluid that was once in the jar with the mystery animal (which turned out to be leather, although at the time I did not know this) had leaked and dried a lovely shade of dark brown. Every surface it touched was sticky. This brings me to my larger point that as an archivist, you never know what kind of sensory experience is waiting under the lid of a closed box or behind an office door. This can be exciting, terrifying, and challenging all at the same time. 

Metal containers the 16mm films were housed in for 20 years in nontemperature controlled storage.

In my current position as Technical Services Head at the Duke University Medical Center Archives, one of my duties is to work with departments to assess the enduring value of their materials, as well as the transfer of those materials to the Archives. I often find myself walking into unknown situations based on a plaintive phone call or desperate email asking for help because a department has materials they do not want to throw out but do not have the space to keep. 

This past May, I received an email from the Department of Neurosurgery. The department had recalled items stored in a non-temperature controlled offsite storage center after 20 years. With no room to store these items, they had been put in the office with the most space in the department—much to the chagrin of the woman who worked in that office. She was slowly being crowded out by the items and the accompanying smells. Yes, smells. Unless you work in an archives, you probably don’t spend much time thinking about how old things smell. 

Technical Services Head Lucy Waldrop making use of a flat surface while packing up the Department of Neurosurgery materials.

I set up a time to conduct an appraisal, which is the process of determining whether the materials have permanent (archival) value. Upon our arrival, we (reference archivist, two interns, and myself) were met with four metal cabinets filled with microscope slides, some were treated so roughly by the movers during transportation that simply opening a drawer resulted in the tinkling sound of shards of broken glass; one large filing cabinet filled with human tumors encased in paraffin wax (the step before being sliced up for a microscope slide); 10 double bankers boxes full of human, dog, cat, and monkey tumors; one set of metal drawers filled with patient records on 4x6 index cards, a cerebral stereotaxy frame, and nine metal containers filled with 16mm film reels. A distinct musty odor accompanied these items, but that did not concern me as much as the hint of vinegar I could smell as I moved closer to the 16mm films. 

Vinegar syndrome, officially named acetate film base degradation, is a condition that results from the deterioration of cellulose acetate over the lifespan of a film. As vinegar syndrome progresses, it causes the film to become brittle, shrink, and take on an acidic odor, which smells like vinegar. While all cellulose acetate film will degrade over time, the progress of this degradation very much depends on storage conditions. Storage in warm and humid conditions greatly accelerates the onset of decay. Once the degradation begins, it cannot be reversed. If caught early, films of value can be sent to cold storage to extend the life of the film. Cellulose acetate film is not uncommon, so it came as no surprise that all the Department of Neurosurgery films were cellulose acetate. But because of the sheer number of films in such a cramped office space, I could not fully investigate them until back at the Archives. 

About a week later, an intern and I went back to the office to pack up the materials we selected for the Archives. Because we do not accept organic materials, the tumors and microscope slides did not come back with us. We did take the patient index cards, the cerebral stereotaxy frame, one 7 inch audio reel, and 155 16mm films. Packing the materials up for the Archives was like playing Tetris in that very crowded office. And to make things more of a challenge, the day we selected to pack up the items also happened to be the birthday of the woman whose office had been overtaken by all the materials. As part of a birthday surprise, her coworkers decorated the office; these decorations included balloons hanging from the ceiling. My intern and I spent the better part of the morning ducking under balloons and climbing over cabinets and tables to access the materials to pack up to bring back to the Archives. 

Some of the 16mm films inside one of the metal containers.

Once back at the Archives, we started to smell vinegar. The films, most of which document procedures done by Dr. Blaine Nashold, were stored in metal film canisters; only a few were loose. We methodically wrote a description of each film, redacted patient information from that description per HIPAA, opened each canister (if there was one), noted if we could smell vinegar and the state of the film, and gave each film a unique ID. Health note here when a film has severe vinegar syndrome, do not sniff or touch it, as it can be hazardous to your health! Acetic acid and other acidic products associated with film decay can produce contact burns and skin and mucous membrane irritation. Wearing protective gloves and working in a well ventilated area are recommended. Also recommended for use are A-D Strips. These dye-coated strips detect and measure the severity of cellulose acetate film deterioration. The acidic vapor given off by the degrading films causes the strip to change color when placed in a closed container (can, bag, box, or cabinet) with the film or films. The color of the strip changes based on the level of acidity present. 

Archives Intern Kahlee Leingang packing up Department of Neurosurgery materials while dodging a balloon.

Many of the films displayed very slight vinegar syndrome symptoms meaning they smelled slightly of vinegar with little to no shrinkage or brittleness to the film. A smaller number of those films had started to shrink and become brittle. Of the 155 films, only three presented with extreme vinegar syndrome symptoms. These three films were different from the other 152 films, as they were commercial education prints, and the canisters used for storage were made of a different type of material than the canisters Dr. Nashold used for his films. In the end, these films were deaccessioned with the permission of the Department of Neurosurgery because they did not fit the Archives’ collecting scope; these were not films created by Duke or an entity or individual affiliated with Duke. The films we kept are now housed in STiL film cans, which are archival quality film containers made of polypropylene with a venting chimney that lets damaging heat and gasses escape. 

I learned a lot when accessioning and processing this collection. First, having never handled so much film in one collection, I thoroughly researched cellulose acetate. After learning more about the topic, I was able to properly rehouse the films and identify the ones showing signs of vinegar syndrome. Additionally, during the course my research, I learned about A-D Strips. This is something I want to incorporate into the Archives’ basic stacks management to measure how far deterioration has progressed and whether our existing storage conditions are good enough to preserve the film we have in our collections. Second, working first hand with deteriorating cellulose acetate film brought home the reality of the fragility of film. Like all formats, it will degrade as it ages, but its lifetime is greatly reduced when not stored in the correct conditions. Film is a good example of a format archivists must proactively check and recheck to ensure environmental conditions are as stable as we can possibly make them because it is quite literally disappearing before our very eyes one vinegar scent trail at a time.  

To learn more about these materials, visit the Department of Neurosurgery Records finding aid or contact the Duke Medical Center Archives staff