Saturday, April 27 Activist Archivists members returned to Third World Newsreel’s Jersey City storage space with JT Takagi to continue the cataloging process begun by MIAP intern Dan Finn. Takagi and Finn had been able to identify about 51 boxes with priority items from the NEWSREEL collection, which made our task less daunting.
A single 6 hour work day was scheduled. A team of 3 (Team 1) worked from Noon – 4:00 pm. With Takagi being the only cataloger with institutional knowledge, we found it easier to work as one, which may have slowed down data entry, but avoided confusion in our opinion. One person entered data, one inspected and read information off of the can or case, the other handled items (removed from shelf, unpacked, handed off, re-shelved) and everyone contributed opinions where needed (i.e. hard to read handwriting transcriptions, should we keep the crumbling box, etc).
We learned that, full of adrenaline, very heavy boxes can be lifted to an unreasonable height. This is a safety hazard we overlooked in our excited state, but were able to swiftly remedy with no injuries. This scenario also demonstrated further how oversized and overstuffed many of the boxes were. It is a natural inclination to want to box items for storage, archive or no. In media archiving, it is not frowned upon to put audio and video elements in archival boxes, but when it comes to film already on cores and in archival cans, shelf stacking simply makes the most sense. Those of us in the group who have gone through archival schooling are trained to accept this, but our experience last weekend clearly illustrated the benefits of doing so.
Entire levels of shelf space were cleared up by removing two boxes worth of heavy film cans that no single soul should have to hoist at once. Ever. Even with all the cute “lift 40 lbs” requirements in ALL archiving jobs.
We also witnessed examples of what excess weight can do to film while in storage:
The great microenvironment foe made an appearance as well: vinegar syndrome. This decay can be exacerbated by storage in enclosed spaces like cardboard boxes. The basic structure of film consists of a transparent plastic base and an emulsion layer that contains photosensitive image forming materials. Fluctuating temperatures, heat, high humidity and water have a tendency to destroy the base of acetate film. In the early stages of decay, the film base releases gaseous acetic acid, the chemical equivalent of vinegar.
Once the vinegar scent becomes apparent, the process of decay is underway and irreversible. Soon the base begins to shrink which causes the film to curl and warp and become stiff and brittle. The vapor released can infect other films nearby (and make you feel like you’re suffocating), especially in a poorly ventilated area. At best, the decay can be slowed with cold storage though not reversed or halted. Once these effects become evident it is advised that you seek options for digitization (and if you come into some really generous funding, look into striking a new print) as soon as possible. More on film preservation and vinegar syndrome can be found here.
The few vinegar items we identified were moved to the second storage unit which contains paper documents only.
Our second major foe encountered was accidental inconsistency. Consistency is a major key to successful cataloging, and it is implemented through clear communication. Cataloging is key for good information management, but has the potential of being mismanaged mainly because it can be overwhelming and/or mind-numbingly tedious. Team 1 ended up cataloging in an old database spreadsheet, where as the new members which came in after 4pm (Team 2!) used the updated spreadsheet. It’s a minor misstep in this instance, but we will need to merge all of the data before embarking on the next catalog session. Team 2 ended up cataloging separately for an extra hour or two. During this time, it also became clear that additional fields were needed, such as those which indicated which items needed new cans, or which had vinegar syndrome. This level of specificity would help with generating statistics that aid in budgeting and grant writing.
Our hiccup can be attributed to not effectively communicating the importance of using a designated spreadsheet, as well as carefully designing the structure of the spreadsheet ahead of time and ensuring that everyone knew how to use it in the same way. Despite our flaws, we carry on confidently knowing this collection will continue to get the attention it deserves.
For a brief and helpful introduction to cataloging, I suggest you take in this: Tips for Catalogers.