Those of you who follow the Society’s blog are aware that the last week in April was Preservation Week, a period set aside by the American Libraries Association to focus on the care and conservation of collections material.
We take preservation seriously at AAS. The word is part of our core mission, in fact. We have a conservation lab on site and the curators regularly review priorities with the head conservator in order to plan actions and treatments for the coming year. We budget for materials and supplies like archival boxes and folders, Mylar pouches, matte board, etc. Surveys and rehousing projects are scheduled at this time, as well.
All this planning and budgeting and discussion is well and good, but occasionally a collection will arrive at AAS unexpectedly. This was the case in early April of this year when I received a phone call from a Worcester County resident who had been planning for years to donate his grandfather’s glass plate negatives to AAS. We had some email correspondence back in 2013, but at that point he was not ready to place the material with us. The negatives were made by Theodor C. Wohlbruck (1879-1936), a Worcester photographer whose early professional archive was already housed at the Society, having arrived here before 1960. The Society’s collection includes over a thousand plates and prints by Wohlbruck, primarily views of towns in Worcester County and photographs of prominent Worcester buildings made between 1890 and 1910.
The donor said he had more negatives, mostly family photographs made in the studio, as well as images related to family trips. His April phone call was stimulated by the unfortunate fact that a springtime flood resulted in water in his basement and the negatives had been impacted. Could we come and get them and preserve them immediately? Without promising much (water and glass plates do not mix well), we agreed to have a look at the damage and see if there was anything we could do. Our conservation lab is a paper based lab. Serious photographic preservation would have to be handled offsite if needed.
Upon arrival at the donor’s home we navigated the dumpster, the box fans, and the quickly laid wooden planks that often accompany a flooded basement here in New England. The negatives were all laid out on a stone wall, in their original paper board boxes. They had been stored on the floor of the basement stacked in a wooden fruit crate and had sat in the water for a couple of days before the flood was detected. It did not look good. We encouraged the donor to contact a conservation center that could handle the negatives, but he wanted them to go to AAS only.
We ended up loading the 148 negatives and their soggy boxes and the fruit crate into the car. A quick phone call to our chief conservator confirmed that the negatives needed to air dry. The negatives were removed from the sodden boxes and were spread out immediately, emulsion side up. Some were completely bonded together, and the ones at the bottom of the box looked to be a total loss. We placed fans strategically and hoped for the best. Preservation, triage style! Our conservator consulted with the regional photography expert and he agreed that air drying offered the best hope for salvation of the plates. It was a stressful 36 hours but the majority of the negatives came through the ordeal intact.
The end of the preservation story for this group of Wohlbruck negatives has not happened yet. The plates are now safely in climate control at AAS and the transfer from the donor is complete. Supplies have been ordered and each negative will be individually foldered and placed in acid free boxes after they have been cleaned. Our photographer made a couple of test scans of the negatives and they appear to be mostly intact, although some are covered in grit and others have losses of emulsion at the edges. Twenty or so are a complete loss, but will be retained as teaching tools.
This portion of Wohlbruck’s work will be preserved alongside the rest of his archive. Making fragile glass plates accessible is another role of a library, along with preservation. The majority of the new donation will be digitized after cleaning and made available to the world through our website. We will continue to post about this fascinating collection as the preservation and digitization moves forward. And one last preservation tip: if you can help it, do not store historic photographs in your basement!