Deterioration Danger Zones

Categories:Archiving, Articles

If you are anything like me, you will have been noticing personnel deterioration danger zones. The aches and pains, slow and forgetful brain, lessening speed and strength etc.. Your doctors visits overtake your social cullender as you mature (hopefully) gracefully! The fact is we tend to deteriorate as we get older – and so does the rest of the world, houses, cars, furniture, appliances etc. etc..

So when did you last look at your family films, videos, photos and sound tapes etc.. And if you have what did they look, feel and smell like?

Deterioration, Dangers and facts of life.

Most of those films, videos, photos and sound recordings made by you and your family during the 20th century rely heavily upon base materials to carry any images and recordings involved. The image on a movie or still film is basically made up of dyes attached to a clear and flexible base. Prints are an arrangement of dyes on a special backing paper. Sound recordings are either patterns cut into a fairly solid substrate or magnetic patterns on a brown spaghetti like substrate.

All of the base materials, glues and binders etc. used to record an actual image or sound will in time deteriorate to something unusable. Some will degrade more quickly than others and quite a lot is now known about where the worst dangers are and what can be done about it.

But firstly there are two main causes of the problem we need to be aware of.

  • Some of the degradation problem has been caused by the wrong choice of materials by manufactures or possibly because that was the best option available at the time!
  • The remainder of the problem could only be best described as natural attrition. The fact is that almost any manufactured material will eventually degrade back to something like its original state. Much of this part of the problem has been known for pretty much all the life of a medium.

Now for some tips as to what to look out for,

what are the danger signs for film, video, photos and sound recordings?

  • First, where have they been stored? In the absence of a controlled archival standard cool room, the next best choice is somewhere reasonably cool and an even mid range humidity without too much variation between seasons. In such conditions most audio visual materials will not have suffered too much, but look carefully nevertheless.
  • Early movie film used nitrate for the base carrier which not only proved to be highly flammable (and caused some very tragic accidents) but also eventually turns into a brown gooey mess – unless it has been fortunate enough to have been long ago placed in very cold storage!
  • Movie or still film bases after nitrate may tend to develop a slightly bitter smell. As serious degradation sets in this will smell much like vinegar and the film may begin to twist and warp as you unroll it. If the film has been exposed to fairly high moisture and/or humidity the film itself will tend to stick together. Do not pry it apart unless it gives way easily as the image itself may be damaged in the process. Do not use any water or fluids on the film in an attempt to ease them apart or to clean the film.
  • Similarly, photographic prints can suffer from moisture and humidity and can stick together. The same advice applies here.
  • A number of brands of sound recording tape changed their formulations in about the 1980s and in time it was realised the binder then used to glue the magnetic recording layer to the tape base went sticky as it absorbed surrounding humidity.This can be stabilised temporarily, under controlled conditions,  sufficient to obtain a copy.
  • At about a similar time some photographic paper manufactures started to introduce new “more stable” products, but eventually professional photographers particularly started to receive complaints about severe colour fade in their expensive display prints. These need to be copied since there is probably no negative available.
  • Video tape degradation often depends not only on the manner of storage, but on the type of tape. Many professional formats are still in very good condition simply because the materials used were good. VHS and Beta cassettes however were made to cheaper standards and do not last. Soon after these formats come out experts were starting to say that these tapes would not last more than 10 years. The reality is that many have probably lasted longer, but possibly these were better brands or stored better. The fact is though that most of these tapes are showing signs of degradation. The tape wears out the more it is played and the materials used will have broken down to some extent. Often this is seen in glitches, flashes or spiky lines across the screen. Picture break up may be caused by damage to tape edge which carries the frame synchronisation information or sound break up because of damage to the other edge of the tape.
  • Black and white films are generally considered pretty stable and colour dyes used in later film could be made very stable and long lasting, but the end result usually depended on the manufacturer concerned. Kodachrome is considered very stable and good for archiving, though the image could fade if exposed in a projector too much. Many other brands have noticeable fading in certain colours now, so much so that a reasonable guess can often be made as to the brand in the absence of other evidence.
  • Some materials may tend towards stickiness, while others may tend to dry out or shrink. often this is difficult to detect at first. Sticky recording tape usually does not feel sticky, but will leave a brown gooey residue on tape guides and recording heads.

As we get older our thoughts may turn to the things we have done or not done as well as more we would still like to do. It is often no different with our media. If we do nothing we will likely loose it. So why save it? These are our memories, these are the reminders of our family history and our journey. Just a lot of nostalgia? Yes, but nostalgia is often healing and rejuvenating. It’s not living in the past, it’s more like anchoring ourselves into the present.