The university fire marshal was polite but firm. We really could not continue to store highly flammable film in the Special Collections stacks.
The film in question was from the Harry A. Franck Papers -- over 9000 negatives on cellulose nitrate film, also known as celluloid or nitrocellulose. Cellulose nitrate is notorious for being extremely flammable.
Why would we want to store highly flammable film in the Special Collections stacks? The images are fascinating. Between 1904 and 1946 Harry Alverson Franck, a University of Michigan graduate, made a career of exploring the world, writing travelogues illustrated with hundred of photographs, and presenting lantern slide lectures.The photographs show landscapes and landmarks and street scenes, people at work and snapshots of everyday life. Franck traveled slowly and deeply into the countries he visited, gathering images and insights well off the usual tourist paths.
Still, nitrate film is a challenge. If it doesn’t burn, nitrate film deteriorates over time, giving off noxious gasses and reducing the film to a brown, sticky, gooey mess. We had been storing the film, securely wrapped, in freezers to slow deterioration and reduce the risk of combustion. But the university fire marshall wasn’t happy.
Storing photographs in a freezer posed another problem. To use them you have to thaw them. Unpack them. Then re-pack them afterwards. It takes time, never mind the challenges of trying to read a flammable, noxious, off-gassing image in negative.
But in 2019 we had a solution to these problems that wasn’t available in 1988, when the collection was given to Special Collections: digitization. Join us tomorrow for an After Hours talk telling the story of a challenging digitization project that pooled expertise from multiple corners of the library to make a previously hidden collection available.
Tomorrow: Tuesday, 14 September 4-5 pm via Zoom
Register to join us!
Explore more on the collection and the project here
Harry Alverson Franck Photographs (digital collection)
Harry A. Franck Papers 1899-1986 (bulk 1910-1946) finding aid (prepared by Sarah Rentz and Kathleen Dow)
Wentzel, Larry (in collaboration with Randal Stegmeyer and Shannon Zachary) "How to Stop Being Negative." Library Tech Talk blog, 27 April 2020