The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 9, Number 7
Dec 1985


Nonprint Experts Speak At NBS

Librarians are becoming concerned about library material that cannot be preserved by the same methods used to preserve books and paper: movies, sound recordings, pictures and magnetic media. These materials, often referred to as nonbook" or "nonprint" materials, make up a growing percentage of library and archival collections. (The April issue of this Newsletter carried a description of a way to preserve magnetic media by putting them on microfilm.)

Although the various kinds of nonprint material are often cared for within the library or archive by specialists, this is not always the case, and their care and use require space, purchase of reading and storage equipment, environmental control, and training in special handling require-merits, all of which involve the administration of the institution as a whole. For these reasons, even nontechnical librarians need to understand their preservation needs.

A day-long program for this purpose was held last November at the National Bureau of Standards, with speakers from the American Film Institute, Library of Congress and National Archives. The meeting was taped on six audio cassettes, from which copies can be made on request. Readers need only send six C60 audio cassettes, plus $3 to cover postage and handling, to Steven M. Wooldridge, Audiovisual Librarian, the Loyola/Notre Dane Library, Inc., 200 Winston Ave., Baltimore, ND 21212 (301/532-8788 or 8787).

A report by Joseph Turkos of the Loyola/Notre Dame Library was published in the Crab, newsletter of the Maryland Library Association, which sponsored the event (v.15 #4, March issue). It is reprinted here with permission from the Crab. Headings were added by the Editor.


Some 35 librarians and other interested individuals gathered November 30th, 1984, at the National Bureau of Standards in Gaithersburg for an all-day program, jointly sponsored by the MLA Audiovisual and Technical Services Divisions, entitled "Conservation of Nonprint Materials in Working Collections or, Now You See it, Now You Don't." After words of welcome from Pat Berger of the National Bureau of Standards, Shirley Peck of the Technical Services Division, and Steve Wooldridge of the Audiovisual Division, the program commenced with keynote remarks from Fred Stielow of the University of Maryland's College of Library and Information Services.

The Phases of Nonprint Preservation

Stielow began by discussing some of the issues and theories behind the conservation of nonprint materials.

He observed that one difficulty is that "nonprint media" itself is a rather amorphous and somewhat alien term in library and archival parlance. It is delineated by what it is not, and it encompasses everything from microfilm to machine-readable data. It extends to most media for securing still pictorial images, moving pictures, and sounds, but it normally excludes material culture artifacts.

The conservation of nonprint media may be seen as an integrated three-stage model, according to Stielow. First is the collection development/appraisal phase, second a maintenance phase, and third a recovery or restoration phase.

The initial phase should include a disaster plan and bring an awareness of the different conservation considerations between the passive storage and the active playing of the media. For nonprint conservation we most really start thinking not just about the storage material bet also about the ways and the machinery that we need to help "read" our newly stored materials. Stielow also stressed that we must be cognizant of health and safety issues in both the maintenance and restoration phases.

The initial phase should also address the thesis that use promotes destruction. This assumption suggests that the only way to save data is not to engage the media, but then what is the value of information that can t be read? Solutions to this dilemma have often entailed an intern step with the purchase or production of backup copies for use and the permanent storage of the masters. But Stielow pointed out several practical and legal difficulties with this seemingly innocent and logical response.

Looking to the future, Stielow suggested that the newer technology, such as laser readers, does seem to eliminate much of the tension between use and preservation without generational degradation. Stielow cautioned that while these developments do hold great promise for solving many of our problems, no medium is likely to emerge as a total panacea, and we should discount exorbitant claims that accompany the introduction of a new format. We need to be prepared for the certain appearance of new problems with each new development.

Moving Pictures

The second speaker, Joseph Empsucha of the American Film Institute in Washington, addressed the topic of film and video conservation. He began by running a five-minute film entitled "Magical Moments Captured on Film Forever," designed to make the public aware of the enormous preservation problems and to encourage them to support the American Film Institute's preservation efforts financially. A massive amount of money is needed--l50 million dollars minimum to handle just the nitrate film problem.

The moving image will be 100 years old in 1993. Approximately 50 to 55% of all pre-1950 feature films are gone. Only 25% of feature films from the 1920s have survived, and only 10 to 15% of all films from the teens are still around. And less than 57 of the approximately 50,000 films that were made before 1910 still survive, even in poor condition. With post-1950 acetate or safety film the problem becomes color fading. Regarding television, something on the order of 50% of all of the shows from 1948 to 1960 are gone.

Empsucha showed a series of slides depicting the various stages of deterioration for nitrate film and examples of film storage. Besides the deterioration itself, nitrate film presents a fire hazard in that the temperature at which it can spontaneously ignite drops from about 3600 Fahrenheit for new film to 1060 in the course of its deterioration. Furthermore, once nitrate is ignited it cannot be extinguished and the fumes given off while it burns are toxic. It is presently impossible to preserve nitrate film. One can only copy it, but unfortunately modern black and white film does not capture the range of grays and the brilliance that nitrate does.

Safety film has been around since at least 1912, but it did not come into greater use before 1950 because it was very inflexible and had a tendency to shrink. For modern safety film, preservation means assessing the condition of the film, determining whether it is good enough to make copying unnecessary, making copies for use, and storing the original copy. More and more copies for use are on videotape.

Color has been in films ever since the beginning--people just painted onto the film by hand or used a stencil. Technicolor, which is very durable in its color, came into being in the 1920s and 1930s. The problem with the Technicolor negatives prior to about 1952 is that nitrate film was used, so that it now needs to be copied onto safety film, with consequent generational loss, to avoid loss of the entire film. To preserve the color in modern film one can make black and white separation negatives tone for each of the three main colors], but that costs $20,000 to $50,000 for an average feature film. It is only within the last three years that Hollywood companies have begun to routinely make separation masters of their color features. The only alternative to separation negatives is cold storage. This will retard the deterioration of color over tine, but the long-term effect of cold storage on color film is uncertain.

The approach for preservation of videotape is the same as that for modern safety film. It has been suggested that videotape be taken out and wound once a year, although some experts say once every five years is sufficient. The big questions, other than whether magnetic videotape will preserve images over time, is how to store it. Empsucha stated that the key for videotape as well as film seems to be the stability of temperature and humidity in the storage environment rather than the precise levels. In closing, he emphasized that we are in the midst of a national crisis in that an important part of our cultural heritage is gravely endangered.

Sound Recordings

The next speaker was Gerald Gibson of the Motion Pictures, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division of the Library of Congress. Gibson covered the conservation of sound recordings and gave a brief overview of recorded sound technology. He observed that, with the exception of prints and photographs, it was not until after World War II that nonprint collections began to be taken seriously for research; the first sound archives with public access was mot established until 1956.

For long-term storage of magnetic materials, Gibson recommended center support, preferably open-reel tape, as large a tape wind as possible, and storage in an archival container. The most prevalent problems with magnetic materials are undesired erasing, separation of the emulsion from the base, print-through, and breakage of the material.

The major problems with discs are warpage, heavy groove wear, breakage, rim chipping, and dirt. Gibson cautioned against stacking records or standing them up with no support. The preferred shelving for disc recordings will have dividers every five inches, allowing for vertical storage. He also recommended that records be kept in their sleeves and slip-cases, and that preservation record sleeves be used if possible. For cleaning records avoid alcohol or anything that contains alcohol.

The high point of Gibson' s presentation was a demonstration of a compact disc player. He played several selections together with older recordings for comparison, ending with Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever." With that piece he progressed from an 1894 Berliner disc recording, to a 1908 acoustic, to a 1926 early electrical, to a 1961 mono, to a stereo, and finally to a compact disc recording. Gibson sees preservation and conservation as helping an item to realize its full life span and the compact disc helps us to do that. We do not have a stylus tracking it and wearing it down, we do not have a tape head wearing tape down, we do not have the question of magnetic erasure, and we do mot have the problem of dirt in the grooves causing substantial damage. Since it is digital it can be duplicated with minimal loss of signal. The questions and problems concerning compact discs that need to be addressed are: what is its potential shelf life (estimates run from 2 to 200 years), how susceptible is it to temperature and relative humidity fluctuations, how badly can it be damaged before there is information loss, what will make it fall apart, and what about theft because of its small size?

Still Pictures and Prints

The afternoon session of the day- long event commenced with a brief presentation on the conservation of prints, photographs, slides and negatives by Carol Johnson of the Prints and Photographs Division at the Library of Congress. Regarding the prevention of deterioration by controlling the environment, she mentioned that a relative humidity of 40% is ideal and should never exceed 60%; the emulsion layers in photographs are very susceptible to cracking with changes in humidity. Temperature should not fluctuate more than two degrees either way and should not exceed 680 for working collections. Other sources of damage mentioned were fumes, light, and insects. She also suggested maintaining two sets of one's collection: one to be kept in cold storage and the other for use.

Magnetic Tapes and Discs

Benjamin DeWhitt of the National Archives and Records Administration spoke next regarding the conservation of machine-readable materials. Since one inch of magnetic tape seldom contains less than 1600 bits, the slightest damage can have tremendous impact in terms of information loss. Some of the most common categories of problems that can occur are dirt, variations in thickness of the tape, adhesion of the elements of the tape, curvature of the tape, cupping, tensile strength, resistance to stretching, and other kinds of wear. Some active measures he listed that can be taken to improve the life of tapes are to handle tape by the hub; use a grommet to hold the end of the tape secure; rewind slowly; be careful about magnetic fields; have a storage place and do not leave tapes on the drives; store tapes vertically, preferable in canisters, remembering to rotate them a quarter turn every six months; and check new tapes by doing a slow pass backwards and forwards through them once.

DeWhitt urged that flexible discs not be either folded or flexed. They should be kept in their jackets and no clips or rubber bands should be used. Environmental conditions should generally be the same as for tape. For long-term storage a vertical arrangement is ideal, while for short-term storage, either vertical or horizontal will suffice. And as for tapes, it is best not to use pencil or to erase when labeling.

The Optical Disc As A Storage Medium

The final speaker was Elizabeth Betz Parker from the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress, who discussed optical disc technology. The Library of Congress optical disc pilot program consists of two experimental projects. There is a print project using a digital disc system devoted to text materials such as certain high-use periodicals, government reports, a manuscript collection, selected maps and sheet music. Secondly, there is a nonprint project devoted to a wide variety of visual media and sound recordings. Since the library wanted to experiment with its pictorial collections in color and with full tonal ranges, a digital disc system was rejected in favor of an analog system for the nonprint project. Optical discs offer great promise for saving space. One 8 x 10 inch book page occupies 54,000 square millimeters; the same page occupies 150 square millimeters on microfilm, 70 on microfiche, but only three to six square millimeters on disc.

Overall that was a well-organized and very worthwhile program. the speakers were not only knowledgeable but also generally very successful in communicating their ideas to the audience. One other plus that should be mentioned is the packet of materials that each participant received. The contents ranged from a basic bibliography on the conservation of nonprint materials, to technical publications from 3M, to brochures advertising equipment, to a description of and order form for Susan Swartzburg's recent book entitled Conservation in the Library (Greenwood Press), and mere. The bibliography was a full six pages and listed not only books and articles but also a series of six slide-tape programs on the storage and care of various nonprint materials. This series, the Storage and Care of Non-Book Items, was produced by the State University of New York at Buffalo and is available for purchase for a nominal price from the National Audiovisual Center in Washington, DC. The Audiovisual and Technical Services Divisions and Steve Wooldridge, especially, are to be congratulated for the excellent program they organized. My only regret is that mere librarians did not attend.

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