RACINE – Recorded history has been slowly disintegrating at the Racine Public Library: the degradation of periodicals captured on microfilm.
The problem was discovered last month and library staffers are now trying to figure out their next move.
Part-time reference librarian Rebecca Leannah said another librarian asked her about the vinegary smell in the microfilm area on April 17. Turns out, it was the smell of microfilm breaking down.
Darcy Mohr, the library’s head of adult and youth services, said that when the issue was brought to Leannah, who has a background in archiving, she said: “Oh boy, we have a problem with our microfilm.”
In the industry, the phenomenon is called Vinegar Rot Syndrome, Leannah said. The threat is great enough that the Racine library, 75 Seventh St., has put a hold on the use of on any microfilm produced before 1990.
Before that year, Mohr explained, microfilm was made with an acetate backing that is susceptible to chemical decay. It’s called Vinegar Rot Syndrome because of the odor emitted during breakdown.
Leannah described the odor as being “like Easter eggs.”
Either way, Mohr said, “once you smell it, it’s too late.”
Two main factors affecting the preservation of microfilm made before 1990, she said, are the storage conditions and the amount of use. Under perfect conditions, microfilm that is never used might last for hundreds of years.
“But in a public library, and people using it every day,” Mohr said, “you might get 30 years.”
Mohr said the most common use of microfilm is reading newspapers for genealogy research.
Of greatest value, she said, is the microfilm collection of Racine newspapers that started in 1838 as the Racine Argus and eventually became The Journal Times. The newspaper’s microfilm collection of past issues only dates back to 1888, she said, thus missing the first half-century of Racine newspapers.
The oldest microfilm is in “pretty bad shape,” Leannah said. Although she doesn’t think any has reached the irreplaceable stage, some are reaching a high state of degradation.
Since discovering the decay, Mohr said, the library has taken a few steps including using tests strips to determine the extent of degradation. “Those not affected will be put in new, acid-free boxes. It can be contagious, so we’re isolating the good ones.”
Leannah said a large fan blowing through the area, and opening of the metal microfilm storage cabinet’s drawers are also helping slow the decay by removing some of the gas. “The test strips are not changing as quickly.”
The ultimate goal is to replace all the library’s important pre-1990 microfilm, Mohr said. One way is to digitize it. “It’s a very lengthy process; you almost have to watch it frame by frame.
“And there’s some thought that digitizing might not be as permanent as people think.”
Mohr said the other option is to reproduce the microfilm on newer film, a silver-halide expected to last 300 years.
“Either one is very, very costly,” she said. For example, the machine to reproduce on new film costs about $60,000, and the film itself is additional.
Mohr said no final costs are in or decisions made yet — nor does the library have any money in its budget for such stop-loss actions.
But, she said: “We can’t lose that history. This is a high priority for us.”