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When librarians smelled vinegar, they knew the clock was ticking to save historic archives

When Toronto Reference Library staff opened cabinets full of historic newspaper collections after COVID-19 closures they were met with a smell usually reserved for fish and chips. 

“We discovered a strong scent of vinegar,” said Nancy Duncan, a manager at the library.

The odour was their first clue that they’d have to take action if they wanted to save the newspaper collection that was stored on tens of thousands of microfilm reels and microfiches.

From the 1950s through the early 1990s, most film was cellulose acetate-based and known as “safety film,” because it replaced the highly unstable and flammable nitrate film widely used before it.

But in the years since, libraries, archives and collectors have discovered “safety film” actually poses a huge threat to film-based archives and collections because it eventually breaks down. An early indication is the smell of vinegar, which comes from acetic acid that the film gives off as it degrades. Eventually, the film shrinks and cracks until the image is lost.

The destructive and contagious chemical decay is aptly called “vinegar syndrome” — and it means the clock is ticking for those trying to preserve history from this era in Toronto, across the country and around the world. 

Luckily for the Toronto Reference Library, Duncan says its newspaper collection — which includes out of print publications like the Toronto Telegraph and back issues of community papers like the Etobicoke Guardian and Scarborough Mirror — was only in the early stages of vinegar syndrome.

Front page of the Toronto Telegram newspaper from May 1866.
The Toronto Telegram newspaper is one of the out of print publications stored on microfilm reels and microfiches the Toronto Reference Library is working to save from vinegar syndrome. (Toronto Reference Library)

“It might have accumulated because the cabinets were closed for a long period,” she said, referring to library closures during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Our main goal is to preserve our local history collections and make them safe and accessible again as soon as possible.”

Normally, the public can access the microform newspaper collection in the library’s Toronto Star Newspaper Room, but the room has been closed since May because of the vinegar syndrome, and is expected to remain that way for at least two more months. 

The library’s plan is to sort through its more than 50,000 microfilm reels and 700,000 microfiches to determine which ones are acetate film and which are polyester film — a newer film type that can last 500 years. At the same time, staff are working to figure out which parts of the newspaper collection aren’t available elsewhere.

Hand holds film up to the light to check for interference colours.
The Toronto Reference Library is testing all of its microfilm and microfiche to determine whether it’s acetate or polyester film. Unlike acetate film, which decays, polyester will last 500 years. (CBC)

The rare records will be preserved by transferring them to polyester film so historians, genealogists and others can continue to view the newspapers in their original formatting. 

“We know it’ll take at least another eight weeks to do the separation work and then the replacement work will continue beyond that,” said Duncan.

The library plans to dispose of its acetate film collection after the rare film reels and microfiches have been copied over, in part due to health and safety concerns. In its most advanced state Duncan says vinegar syndrome can cause contact burns, as well as irritation to the nose and lungs.

Some other archives are taking a different approach. 

CNE working to digitize ‘communal memories’

The Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) Archives started digitizing its collection of more than 109,000 acetate film photo negatives in the early 2010s because they were starting to succumb to vinegar syndrome.

Woman holds up photo negative that is warped and cracked from vinegar syndrome.
Shayda Spakowski, who runs the Canadian National Exhibition Archives, holds up an acetate film negative experiencing the effects of vinegar syndrome. Acetate-based films give off acetic acid as it degrades, causing the film to shrink and crack until the image is lost. (Ken Townsend/CBC)

The vast majority of the negatives come from its Alexandra Studio Collection — named after the company that handled the CNE’s media and photography from the 1940s through the early 1980s.

“What we’re aiming to do is save these precious images, which are a part of our communal memory,” said Joanne Benerowski, executive director of the CNE Foundation, which launched a fundraiser for the digitization efforts in 2021.

“[The photos] capture what our culture was, what people were wearing, the changing demographics, what was popular in interest, because the CNE always reflects what’s going on in society.” 

WATCH | How the CNE is preserving its collection affected by vinegar syndrome: 

when librarians smelled vinegar they knew the clock was ticking to save historic archives 3

What is vinegar syndrome and how do you preserve old film affected by it?

1 day ago

Duration 0:47

Shayda Spakowski, from the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) Archives, explains what vinegar syndrome is and how she’s preserving decades of photos from its destructive chemical decay for the public.

The archive is preserving the collection chronologically by rehousing the film in acid-free envelopes, scanning the negatives to make digital copies, then packaging the photos for long-term cold storage in freezers, which will slow down the effects of vinegar syndrome.

The negatives need to be separated because if decay has started in one and it’s touching another, the acetic acid can trigger a domino effect. 

“It’s kind of like catching the flu,” explained Shayda Spakowski, who runs the CNE Archives. 

“If you’re on public transit and someone has the flu, it’s going to quickly spread to other people just because of close proximity.”

Louis Armstrong performing on stage and a second photo of Louis Armstrong standing beside a woman eating an appetizer.
Two archival photos of Louis Armstrong at the Canadian National Exhibition in 1962. Digitizing and preserving photos taken at the CNE from the 1940s through the early 1980s is an important part of preserving culture and showing how our interests, fashions and demographics have changed over time. (The Canadian National Exhibition Association Archives)

Digitized photos available online

More than 79,000 photos have been digitized so far and are available to browse in the CNE Archive Portal online.

“You name it, I’ve probably digitized it,” said Spakowski.

“I’ve got photos of old performances such as Bob Hope up on the grandstand, or I also have Louis Armstrong at the bandshell,” she said.

“I also have photographs of garbage cans and laying sod. So I’ve literally got the full spectrum from the not so interesting to the ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe that actually happened.’ “

Cat with trophy and ribbons infront of it in one photo and a baby sitting with a trophy in the other photo.
Archival images show the cat show champion in 1964 and a baby contest winner in 1972 at the Canadian National Exhibition. Images like these are being digitized to preserve them. (The Canadian National Exhibition Association Archives)

Other highlights for Spakowski include pictures from the cat show and the baby contest, which are “interesting and creepy at the same time.”

Spakowski has scanned up until 1979 and the Alexandra Studio collection goes up until 1983. In the meantime, temperature control is important for anyone trying to preserve these kinds of film collections. 

Keep film cold to buy time

“The best thing that we can do for films like that is to cool or freeze them because the lower temperatures significantly diminish the processes of degradation … and it really buys us a lot of time,” said David Daley, conservation advisor at the University of Calgary Archives and Special Collections. 

“It lets us determine which films are most important and determine which ones to digitize and to reformat.”

Man in lab coat holds testing strip to test old film reel.
University of Calgary conservator David Daley places a paper test strip into a can of motion picture film. If vinegar syndrome is active, the strip will change colour to indicate the level of deterioration. (Sara Bohuch)

The University of Calgary took over the Glenbow Library and Archives in 2019. Daley says its collection of film centres largely around Western Canadian history and includes a lot of footage and stills from the Calgary Stampede. 

Since taking over the archive, Daley says they’ve tested 2,500 film reels and negatives for vinegar syndrome using litmus strips that react to vinegar gasses in the film cans. 

“From the colour identification we were able to segregate the least stable films and take measures to preserve them,” he said.

A hand holds a blue strip up beside a Calgary Stampede film reel.
A blue strip shows this Calgary Stampede film reel is still in good condition and not experiencing vinegar syndrome. (David Daley)

For those who might have personal collections of acetate film reels and negatives at home, Daley recommends keeping them out of the basement or attic and away from direct sunlight. 

“Main floor closet space tends to be better because the climate is more consistent,” he said.

But like all acetate film, it will still eventually break down.

“It’s an inherent vice,” said Daley.

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