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An “Extraordinary Journey”: Inspecting Archival Film from the Ruth Gruber Papers

Posted in observance of Preservation Week, today’s post is written by Kate Philipson, Media Preservation Assistant in the Barbara Goldsmith Preservation, with input from ARL/SAA Mosaic Fellow Jasmine Sykes-Kunk.

Archival inspection of historic film is often like detective work. When there is minimal information, background, or labeling on a film collection, it is up to archivists to use available tools and professional knowledge in order to determine not only what the content of the film might be, but also the safest way to stabilize it for future preservation needs. Recently, NYU’s Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives acquired the papers of Ruth Gruber (1911 – 2016), a pioneering journalist, photographer, writer, and humanitarian; included in the 185 boxes of materials were a variety of 16mm films and fragments to decipher. Importantly, careful and detailed film assessment connects to other steps in the Library’s accessioning and processing workflow, all with the ultimate mission of making research materials safely preserved and widely accessible for users.

Film housings from the Ruth Gruber Papers. Photos by Kate Philipson and Jasmine Sykes-Kunk.

I, as a Media Preservation Assistant in the Barbara Goldsmith Preservation & Conservation Department and a graduate student in NYU’s Archives and Public History MA program, together with ARL/SAA Mosaic Fellow Jasmine Sykes-Kunk, gained experience handling, inspecting, rehousing, and reporting on the diversity of films in the Gruber collection. We learned how to safely and slowly wind through film to rehouse and place it onto inert polypropylene archival cores, rather than the original reactive metal reels. We also identified and recorded different symptoms of film deterioration, including “vinegar syndrome,” which occurs when the base of acetate film breaks down and releases the acetic acid used in its production.

Left: Kate Philipson and Jasmine Sykes-Kunk at the film inspection bench. Photo by Kimberly Tarr.  Right: Films from the Ruth Gruber Papers: one in new archival housing, one still on its metal reel in a shipping box.

Some of these issues include the film experiencing warpage and shrinkage, becoming brittle and possibly breaking, and the emulsion visibly separating from the base. Other preservation concerns that are important to note during a film inspection are scratches on the base or emulsion, whether there is perforation or edge damage, how dirty or dusty it is, and if the color has faded from the picture. In the later stages of acetate degradation, the emulsion can either flake off of the plastic base, or can cause the film to adhere to itself, making its safe removal from the original reel impossible without chemical intervention. In the Gruber collection, two films were unable to be inspected due to their advanced state of deterioration. (Learn more about vinegar syndrome, and how to identify and mitigate it, from this NYU Preservation Department blog post!)

A film from the Ruth Gruber Papers in an advanced state of acetate deterioration. Photos by Kate Philipson and Jasmine Sykes-Kunk.

Along with the physical conditions, the content of each film varied widely. The collection includes short reels from the late 1930s that appear to be from Gruber’s personal travels, as well as different elements of Alaska: The New Frontier, a film produced as a part of Gruber’s work as a field representative for the United States Secretary of the Interior, exploring the Alaskan Territory from 1941-1943. There is also an edited compilation newsreel titled “News Thrill” that appears to be from the mid-1940s, and a “candy box” of very short film fragments, which we spliced together into a single reel with slug leader between fragments, but could not clearly identify their relationships.

Photos by Kate Philipson and Jasmine Sykes-Kunk.

Some basic film inspection procedures include counting the number and type of splices a reel includes, identifying the edge codes and camera codes on the film (which can determine the year the film was made and the type of camera it was shot on), repairing major tears in the film or perforation damage with tape splices, and adding head and tail leader to each film with clear descriptive metadata. One of the most important steps during film inspection, as for all intervention with archival materials, is to make clear and detailed notes about the actions taken and the decisions that were made. This work can help archivists and users interested in these materials to gain a better understanding of film collections, creating a deeper appreciation of their value in relationship to other archival resources and to the historical record.

A film shipping container from the Ruth Gruber Papers. Photos by Kate Philipson and Jasmine Sykes-Kunk.

This collection is awaiting more complete processing by NYU’s Archival Collections Management team, and the university is currently raising funds towards this end. To learn more about Ruth Gruber’s life and work, visit: