This blog post was authored by our spring Simmons University archives intern, Brittany Fox.
Sometimes the life-cycles of records must come to an end. Despite unremitting efforts to preserve our holdings, the nature of the material can lead to irreparable damage. Recalling that April 21-27 was Preservation Week, today we are highlighting how sometimes items must be removed from a collection to protect the safety of other records.
Certain negatives from our Cambridge Engineering image collection have deteriorated due to improper chemical processing during their creation. The negatives have seized, buckled, and bubbled, which has compromised their physical integrity. There is no way to stabilize this type of deterioration and the mutation can cause damage to other negatives in physical proximity. When negatives undergo this type of decay, they can give off acetate gas. This anomaly, also known as Vinegar Syndrome due to its vinegar-like smell, can initiate similar decay in nearby negatives. Therefore, we have decided to discard these negatives.
But fret not, we have digitized and saved them as high-resolution images. Although they will no longer be preserved in their original form, we have maintained access to the content through digitization. Print copies have also been created as a backup precaution.
While the preservation of our negatives is a major priority, it is also important to learn about their context as well. They were part of a collection of over a thousand 5” x 7” negatives dating from the late 1920s through the 1960s that were given to the Commission by Cambridge former City Engineer James Rice in the early 1980s. Between the 1920s and 1940s a member of the City Engineer’s staff functioned as the city’s official photographer, collaborating with the City Solicitor, the Department of Public Works, and the Cambridge Police Department. Whenever a citizen filed a claim or directed attention toward an issue or hazard that arose in the city, such as potholes, dangerous sidewalks, and motor vehicle accidents, the City Engineer send a photographer to the site. These photographs were used when the complaints were taken to the city courts to be rectified.
The negatives were acquired by the CHC along with the City Engineer’s Graflex Speed Graphic camera. In order to make an image the photographer would have inserted a sheet of unexposed film into a film holder in the darkness of a light-proof bag. Once secure so that no light would inadvertently expose the negative, the film holder would be inserted into the camera. A film holder could accommodate two pieces of film, so to make a dozen images the photographer would have to prepare and carry six bulky film holders. This particular type of camera has a focal plane shutter and a removable dark slide. It was meticulous work to get just one photographic negative and we have hundreds in the collection! Executive Director Charles Sullivan took several photos with this camera for publication in the Commission’s 1988 book, East Cambridge. Large format film and photo-processing labs are difficult or impossible to find today, so the camera will probably never be used again.
Some of the damaged negatives pulled from the collection exhibit automobile accidents, buckling sidewalks, and an exposed pipe in a giant hole. While they were intended as evidence for court hearings, the images also have secondary uses. They incorporate everyday snapshots of life in Cambridge between the 1920s-1940s, from the fashion of the passersby to the models of the cars. While these few images do not tell a very broad story, the collection in its entirety has a high future research value.
If you are interested in this collection or any of our other resources, please make a research appointment at firstname.lastname@example.org. Our research hours are: Monday: 4:00-7:00 pm | Tuesday: 2:00-4:00 pm | Wednesday – Thursday: 9:30-11:30 and 2-4 pm.