From the Archives: What to do when Disaster Strikes

POST BY MAllen

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Archives
The Archives' photograph training session

As in most professions, it is important for archivists to keep up with their professional development in order to be up to date with current theory and practice in the field, and to expand their knowledge. In this week’s ‘From the Archives’ blog post, Archives Assistant Lucy Vinten Mattich reports on two training events that she and other members of the Archives team have recently attended for just that purpose.

Archivists need many different skills.  We need to know how to look after records in different media -- a parchment land-deed, a nineteenth century bound volume, a rapidly-degrading 1970s photograph album, a 4½” floppy disk or entirely digital – which all need to be preserved in appropriate ways.  Above all, we need to know what to do to save each of these when a disaster happens.

Archival disasters usually involve water.  Fire is also a threat, but it very often the water used to extinguish a fire causes the most damage to the archival material. 

Recently, staff at the Jesuit in Britain Archive have attended two training events to help us learn how to better protect the archive in the event of a disaster. 

On 16 February, Sally and I took the train to Reading to attend a workshop run by Sue Hourigan for the Catholic Archives Society on Paper Conservation following a Disaster.  After a short discussion about what to do in the case of a flood (don’t panic -- act fast) and a demonstration, we moved on to the practical part of the session, in the beautiful conservation studio at Berkshire Record Office.  Here we found a paddling-pool sized container full of water, with many different types of archival material floating in it.  These included bundles of photographs, nineteenth century parchment documents and books, parish magazines, maps, architectural drawings and notebooks.  Once we got over the shock of seeing actual old records in water, we set to work salvaging them.  We discovered the wonders of melinex sheets in handling individual wet paper pages, and the usefulness of archival blotting paper. We learnt how to wrap volumes up in medical lint bandages to support them when they are sodden.   I was struck by the resilience of paper even when wet, and how effective early intervention for wet paper can be, before any disaster professionals are involved in the process.  It was an extremely useful training session, with the ‘hands-on’ session very effective.

On 7 March we had a training day at the Jesuits in Britain Archive.  This time the subject was photographs; there are many photographs in the archive with more constantly turning up as we catalogue the backlog of material, and we wanted to know how the various types of photographs need to be treated.  Lorraine Finch, a photograph conservator, came to the Archive elucidate us. 

Lorraine showed us her collection of photographs, including Daguerreotypes from the 1840s, Calotype Negatives, Wet Collodion Positive, Tintypes, Gelatine Dry Plate Negatives, Cellulose Nitrate Negative, and Cellulose Acetate Negative. 

Lorraine explained why it is so important for archivists to identify the photographic processes used in each photograph.  Different processes need different treatment in the event of a flood.  One of the standard responses to wet archives is to freeze them, so they can later be dried out slowly.  However glass plate photographs must not be frozen, or the image will disappear.  Whilst some photographic processes are more resilient to water, images made using the collodion process are destroyed completely if they get wet.  Armed with this sort of knowledge, archivists can make better decisions not only about what to do in a disaster but how to manage storage so that these type of photographs will be safe even if the worst does happen.

Lorraine explained the different processes used in photography, including the chemistry, and showed the varying ways each of them deteriorate over time.  Some of these are quite dramatic, including ‘vinegar syndrome’, which affects cine film and negatives, and causes them to shrink and bubble and eventually decay entirely due to an auto-catalytic reaction.  Vinegar syndrome is quite easy to diagnose, as there is a strong smell of vinegar.  More alarming is old cellulose nitrate film, which if not stored at the correct temperature and relative humidity can spontaneously combust.  Even more worrying, as it burns it creates its own oxygen, making it very hard to extinguish. 

 

Both of these training days were extremely useful and have made me think more about good storage being good preservation, and to feel a little more confident about what to do when water seeps into the archive.

 

If you are interested in the work of the Archives and would like to know more, please contact us.