Stories of the Germans from Russia

Linda Sommer (LS)
Speaker, Germans from Russia Heritage Society Convention
Pierre, South Dakota
July 8, 1994

Transcription by Hope Wald
Edited by Linda Haag

LS: I should probably begin by saying for those of you who didn’t get up to the Cultural Heritage Center earlier in the week, and may not have met me before, my name is Linda Sommer. I am the state archivist for South Dakota. The reason I was asked to come and speak today was because your organization group in North Dakota thought that there might be some of you who might need some advice on how to take care of your family photographs that you’re trying to preserve. That’s my topic for today. I want to be, especially since we’re such a small group, as loose as possible. If I’m speaking about something that you have a question about please go ahead and interrupt me, I won’t be at all offended or thrown off track by it. I’ve done this enough that I can find my way back and find my place and it will be ok. Since we all are kind of pressed for time I want to make sure that I give you some information about where to get more information than I have time to tell you about today.

My three favorite sources on this topic are these books, and I’ll pass them around so you can get titles and addresses out of them if you want to for ordering. This is the Society of American Archivists basic manual series, there booklet on conservation. They’ve done a series of about twenty books on different topics. This addresses not only photographs, but how to take of family papers collections, any paper based objects, books, photographs, and they also discuss film to a certain degree. You’ll see a series of diagrams and instructions in the back for making different types of these closures, and for handling different types of paper storage problems.

This is my favorite source on old photographs. Not only because it’s a very good source, but also because this man was my teacher when I took classes at NDSU. So I’m a little attached to him. He is the countries expert on photographs, no doubt about it. He only covers materials up to about 1920, so if all of your photographs are a more recent than that this book may not help you. One thing that I love about this book is that those of us who are a little lazy, and may not want to read the whole book, you can grasp everything that Jim has to say. When you buy this book you get this wonderful chart with it, and on it he has really good telling photographs of the different photographic types that were produced up to about 1920. What they are called, the time period in which you will find them, and if you’re lucky enough to have a really good quality magnifying glass or a small microscope to get your hands on, those that are hard to tell the difference between is given an idea on this side of the chart of what to look for under a magnifying glass or microscope to distinguish the different types. It’s a real handy tool.

If most of us should only work about having century photographs, this is the better source for you. It’s particularly good on color photography. If you have a photo lab in your town that you’re satisfied with the quality of the pictures that you’re getting back from them, you may want to point this book out to them in case they have time to look at it. In the back are all of the Kodak technical recommendations for producing colored photography that lasts as long as possible. It does have a 19th century picture in it also.

Can I take a minute to explain our two handouts? I see we have some folks coming in the back. The one that has the darker cover is from that purple conservation manual that I’m passing around. The purpose for me giving you this is if you happen to live in a small town where you can’t get a hold of the supplies I’m talking about, but would like to buy some; this is a list of suppliers who sell these things through the mail. Their address is in there, and you can write to them and ask for a catalog. One company that is listed there that I know will sell small quantities of photo supplies through the mail is, the Light Impressions Company in Rochester, NY. They have very good products. Most of the others that are in that book do as well.

The other handout is the Society of American Archivist’s sort of quick and easy information on what photographs are made of, why they deteriorate, and what factors in our environment, and in the way that we handle them or store them, have to destroy or preserve them. I wanted to give you this because I didn’t think there was time in the about of time that we had this afternoon to get too technical about this, but there is some technical information here that you can read on your own. I thought our time would best be spent talking about we can do to take care of the pictures, rather than what they’re made of and how they’re produced. If I’m wrong about that let me know, and then during the question period we’ll go through some of that. I want to share with you one example of why you and I need to be concerned about this in our homes. Both this yellow sheet and white sheet are two copies of the exact same document so it doesn’t need to go from side to side.

When I first came to South Dakota in 1988, I was horrified to find it was the best of intentions, our staff had dry mounted virtually our entire photo collection to cardboard mouth. Not knowing about the cardboard they were fixing them to, or the adhesive they were using, had an acid problem. Unfortunately over 90% of what they used does have an acid problem. This has been done to over 80,000 prints in our collection, which means that we have 80,000 problems to undue in order to preserve these photographs. We took the problem to the conservation laboratory that we work most closely with, which is the lab at the University of Denver in Colorado. It’s called the Rocky Mountain Regional Conservation Center. They recommended what they would give to remove these photographs, but told us that if they were to do it in their laboratory, they’d have to charge us 50 dollars per image. 50 dollars times 80,000 photographs is certainly more money than the state of South Dakota is going to invest in buying a conservative time for this problem. So our staff had to learn that procedure, and we’ve been working on solving that problem for about seven years now, and we’re only about half done. You’re never going to have a problem that big in your house, but before you get a problem that big, you take it to a conservator and spend money on. It’s just like everything else in your life, prevention, “an ounce of prevention, a pound cured”.

One of the things that seriously harm photographs is the way that we handle them. As a real graphic example of this I want to pass around this X-ray that really hasn’t been handled very often. It’s been handled in three workshops that I’ve used it for since I found it by six jurors, two defense attorneys, one prosecuting attorney, and I assume some folks in the county sheriff’s office who gave it to me. So it hasn’t had a tremendous amount of handling, but it’s had enough.

This is an X-ray used in a court case out there; I forgot to say that. You can see serious fingerprint damage on that, move it up to the light.  All those things that I’m going to pass around I bought, or borrowed, or someone gave me exclusively who weren’t using the workshops, so don’t be afraid to touch them. You’re not harming anything that’s precious to the South Dakota Historical Society.

What we learned from that is that if you’re having photographs, if it’s real precious to you and you want to preserve it, photographs or negatives, do something like wear some little cheap white cotton gloves to handle them. If you don’t want to invest into something like this, when you do handle it, handle it by the edges. Don’t put your fingers in the center of it. When you’re labeling it we hope that everyone will try to identify these pictures, they won’t mean anything to your family members after your gone if you don’t. When you are labeling them, don’t write on the center of the back. That will eventually transfer through to the front of your picture as the ink, the acid and the ink, decompose. Ballpoint pen is the worst. Felt tip pen is probably the next worst because of the acids in the ink. At the state historical society the only thing we’ll do to mark a photograph is to use a #2 soft lead pencil to mark a number in the corner on the reverse. That’s the only thing we write on the picture. Then we put all of our cataloging, identifying information on paper in our computers tacked to that number. You may want to try something similar with your own pictures. I’ll talk about some other methods as we come across different storage techniques.

Audience: There was a blue soft pencil; do you know what I’m talking about?

LS: I’d be suspicious of the blue dye in that pencil.  But since I don’t have the pencil to test I don’t want to depreciate someone else’s product, but I’d be suspicious of anything that was blue. There has to be some dye in it to make it blue.

Audience: On most photographs pencils don’t work.

LS: On modern photography that is a problem because you have that glossy surface and it smudges off. I’ll skip ahead a little bit and talk about plastic exposure because that’s a partial answer to your question. The first three things I’m going to say aren’t kind of directly to answer your question; so be patient and I’ll get to it quickly. One type of good storage mechanism is plastic sleeves that are made out of preservation quality plastics. There are only three of those; they are polyester, which some of you may know as mylark type D, that’s the most commonly manufactured polyester, there’s also a commonly sold one that I think is, if I remember the pronunciation of the company right, is Monex, the generic term is polyester, the other two are polyethylene, which this sleeve that I’ll pass around is made from; and polypropylene, which is also a stable plastic, which is more rigid than this sleeve. You can tell the difference between polyethylene and polypropylene by weather it’s soft and bendable, or weather it’s a hard sleeve. All three of the one’s that I mentioned are chemically stable; they’re not going to harm the photographs that you put into them because of what they’re chemically made of. Usually the one’s that are of good quality because they’re charging you more for them they will bother to put one of those words on it. Just because it says preservation the federal government doesn’t monitor it, so you don’t need to word preservation on anything; we’ve learned that through sad experiences. I’m sure that this sleeve was sold to someone, for example, with the word preservation on it. Somewhere this was a good preservation tool. This is the bad plastic, polyvinylchloride, and it’s unfortunately the one that is most widely sold because it’s the least expensive to produce.

The sleeve that I passed around and this sleeve were purchased within a month of each other. When you have this one in your hand you can see how nice and soft and flat and fluffy it still is. When you have this one in your hand you can see how this plastic in just eight years has not even really been used, it’s just been in storage with this sleeve. What serious damage has happened to this, all of the cockling and waving in it, and what’s happening here that’s harmful to your photographs is that the chlorine that’s in this is leaching out and gassing off from this product. Where’s it gassing off to? It’s gassing off to your slides, your photos, you’re whatever else you have stored in here. Most of the inexpensive albums that you buy at K-mart, at Wal-Mart, or Ben Franklin, or what have you, the plastic in it is this kind of plastic, and it’s eventually going to do that kind of damage to your photographs. I sure don’t mean to suggest to anyone that every photograph that you have is worth spending the money on to do this special kind of care we’re talking about today. If you’ve got 45 pictures of little Johnny’s 4th Birthday party, all 45 of them aren’t equally precious to you, pick the two or three that are and try to preserve those. Don’t worry about the others. Put those in an inexpensive album and let the folks scan through them. Don’t keep grandma’s wedding picture in an album like this, anything that you want to pass along to your children and grandchildren needs to be better protected than in a sleeve like that.

What’s good about the three plastic sleeves, and an answer to your question, is that you can put a photograph in that sleeve and put a paper label, just a stick on label, and this plastic will certainly protects your photograph from the adhesive on the stick on label and the bad paper it’s made out of for 65 or 70 years. By then someone surely could invest the money to put them into a new sleeve. You can put your labeling on the back of that piece of paper that you stuck to the master plastic on the photo in your album.

Audience: Is that proven that 65 to 70 years, is that proven?

LS: Only the chemical aging test, because a lot of these products haven’t been on the market for more than 15 to 20 years at most. The Library of Congress and institutions like that have done some chemical aging tests on some of these products. The Hollanger Corporation in Virginia has also funded and that’s just kind of a guesstimate that you’re going to have at least that much protection even if you would have something back that’s on the outside of it. I’m sure that’s real conservative also.

We all know that we’re all told not to laminate the document because it provides permanent harm to that document in capsulate vs. laminate, most of you probably heard that. I had seen in my faliptions and elsewhere, things that have been laminated for more than 50 years that are still quite usable and haven’t degraded to the point that we expect them to; perhaps were lucky. I’m not standing for recommending anyone laminate anything, but I’m saying that if you have you may not need to think you’ve done the worst thing in the world, and your children aren’t going to be able to see this document. If you haven’t done it yet, don’t do it. To make a sleeve for something, basically a sandwich to put around a documented photograph out of one of those three pieces of plastic, lamination melts the plastic into the object inside it, and a capsulation just creates basically a bolder binder in which to store it. It gives the same physical support and the same support against environmental conditions and handling that might harm it, but it doesn’t melt the plastic permanently into the document. Lamination does do that, and that’s what conservers are worried about because you can permanently chemically change what’s inside the sandwich that you made for the lamination. Those plastics are wonderful.

With the three that I mentioned, unless you’re in a humid environment or any environment where the temperature and humidity goes up and down constantly, the reason that they can be harmful in that kind of environment is because moisture will get trapped inside them and create little water spots. The water doesn’t have anywhere to go inside plastic except onto your photograph or onto the paper, or whatever you have inside that plastic sleeve. If you know you have that kind of a problem there are all kinds of acid neutral paper sleeves that you can buy. I’ll just pass around a couple of examples.

On this one I particularly like you to notice that this seam on this side, so all of the adhesives on this are on the side. It’s a bad idea to buy an envelope where the seams down the center because eventually the glue that’s in that adhesive line down the center is going to transfer to what’s inside it. Even better is to have an envelope with no seams, particularly for negatives. You can buy these even in a lot of photo studio stores that take professional photography studios that will replace when you take your film to be developed. No adhesives, no seams in here. The other good thing about this type of envelope, which is called, in all the literature, a four-flap envelope, is that you never have any problems sliding the picture in and out, getting it caught on a seam, scratching it with anything that might have fallen inside the envelope, you can open this up and lift it out. These are also expensive.  Choose carefully the photographs that you want to preserve and spend your money on those.

One of the big problems with photographs is that they are made with a variety of materials which degrade at different rates, and interact with each other in different ways depending on what their stored in. That’s why we like to put things in their own little pristine environment in a clean acid-neutral envelope, or plastic sleeve.

This photograph on your left is a type called a “protino” type. I want you to notice the transfer of this lady’s face over to this page. Most modern photographs the image bearing substance that’s in the gelatin that produced the photograph is silver salt. That’s what reflects the light back to you and let’s you see a photograph, the image that was created. In a platinum print that salt is platinum salt. It’s particularly subject to this kind of transfer image onto whatever it’s attached to. The original picture is being harmed because it’s in contact with acidic paper and it probably was originally darker than you see here. Just one strong example of the chemical changes that take place in an album, or in something that your storing that your storing with, and a good reason for, as I said storing things separately or putting some kind of a barrier between images.

Something that’s particularly harmful to photographs also harmful to any organic or light sensitive substance is exposure to certain kinds of light. This photograph is fading, not terribly bad but I’m sure you can see it’s faded enough that it’s not the original picture, what we originally had in that picture. The most harm is done by ultraviolet radiation. The most common sources of that is natural sunlight, or fluorescent tubes. There are very inexpensive things that you can buy, and you’ll have them in your list in your handout, to wrap around a fluorescent tube. Those cost, I think the most expensive one I’ve seen was about 50 cents. It’s an ultraviolet shielding piece of film you can wrap around a tube, put it on a window; if you have something hanging on a wall that you need to protect from sunlight you can buy ultraviolet radiation filtering Plexiglas, its called UF3. It doesn’t really change the appearance of what you put on the wall, but it protects it from fading damage from light. Any photo framing store or glass company will usually sell that and they’ll cut it to size for you. I believe that there is a supplier for UF3; it’s a type of Plexiglas. As I said, if you have any reputable frame shop that may be in your community will have it, or the people that fix car windows, or windows in your house, usually if they don’t carry it can get it for you. It’s really not much more expensive than a sheet of glass surprisingly. It’s worth spending it for something that’s precious to you.

 It’s also important when you frame something to have a mat between it and the glass. If you don’t put a mat between the glass of something your framing and the object itself, again humidity is a problem if you have a humid or fluctuating humidity condition particularly with photographs and pastel print type documents, pages from old magazines with that glossy surface, a lot of times people will like to frame those, old lithographic print that might have heavy inks on them, that moisture will make them stick to the glass and it’s almost impossible to get them off of the glass without ruining the object or at least damaging it significantly. If you’re getting something framed that’s precious to you, please have a mat between the object and the frame. An acid-neutral mat is a good thing to do.

I brought this photograph along with me to show you a condition that’s called foxing that’s really common in photographs as they age. Nothing that happened to photographs usually happens from one particular source, it’s a combination of things. Foxing can occur because of the adhesive that’s behind the print that attached it to the card, for those of you who haven’t seen it yet, we’re talking about little brown spots, and you’ll see those. It can happen from interaction of the chemicals in a print that wasn’t properly washed with the environment around it for being in contact with an acidic board such as the board in the adhesive behind it is probably what caused the problems in this print because it doesn’t appear to have a lot of these digital chemicals left on it when we touched it.

The reason I wanted to bring that with me is because a lot of you have probably seen it in your own photographs. You’re going to start seeing a new type of Foxing in new photographs if you use magnetic albums to store your photos in. If you look at those carefully even when their new, when their new you see the kind of gray stripes going this way or this way on the page, as they start to age those turn yellow. What those stripes are, rather than being a magnet, is they are a type of adhesive that the picture sticks to. As your photographs and those pages age, inside them, particularly covered with plastic, it’s going to happen faster. You’re going to get little yellow stripes across or down your photographs depending on what’s inside them. Usually in those magnetic albums, the plastic page that comes over and closes them is that bad polyvinylchloride plastic. So you’ve got at least two problems with those.

Another thing that’s real common is those old black page scrapbook type albums, that paper is real acidic paper. I say that knowing that many of you have albums that may be 85-90 years old in your home that you have pictures in those that look just fine to you. If you were able to prepare them to what that picture looked like 75 years ago though, you would see some degradation and you will continue to see degradation of that print from being in contact with that paper, particularly on an image bearing side.

I talked about polyester, but I didn’t pass any around. This poor scruffy looking little thing is something that I used in workshops when we’re discussing different subjects, which is how to take care of paper generally. We do day long workshops at the state historical society to teach you how to clean paper, how to remove adhesive tapes from it, how to flatten it for storage, how to flatten your photographs for storage if you’ve gotten them curled up somehow. We take surface dirt off of things, and we repair tears in most of our workshops. One of the things that we do is everyone, with whatever pieces of paper their working on in the workshop that day, we have them encapsulated in polyester fashions similar to this.

 This is polyester; it’s a very narrow grade of polyester. This is only one mill; most of it is three mills thick. After we have the people in the workshops work real hard and encapsulating something we say, “Ok, now pick it up and do this”. You scrunch it up, and then we have you cut it open. When you do cut it open you see that all of the damage that you have done to the plastic hasn’t happened to the paper inside of it. A little bit of it has, but 90% of it hasn’t. All the little crinkly lines that you see in this plastic if I took this piece of paper out it wouldn’t be there. So that’s kind of a dramatic representation to people that attend one of our workshops of just how much protection that plastic can provide in terms of physical support.

I’ve talked a lot about acid, and the damage from acid. One question that people usually ask me is, “Suppose I go out and spend all this money, how do I know that I got what I paid for?” Well in South Dakota, and maybe in the state that you live if you’re not from South Dakota, we’re happy to have you send samples of stuff to our lab of what you purchased and we’ll test it for PH for you. It’s also something you can do in your home; we’d be glad to send your strips to help you do it in your home, very simple process. If you took high school or college chemistry you’ve used these little PH and acid based indicator strips before the basic chemistry behind it, is that you moisten this strip in contact with the object that you’re testing. After the strip has been in contact with that object for, oh it never takes longer than about three minutes; you compare it to the chart that comes with these boxes. What color it turned to tells you what the acid rating on it is. I’ll pass that around so you can see those. I brought the one from our lab that is the greatest range because it’s the one we used the least often.

The PH scale runs from 0-14, and that one attempts to measure that entire broad scale. The narrower group measurement of strips you get the better measurement you’re going to get. I wouldn’t recommend that folks go out and buy those PH indicator pans that are in a lot of the catalogs, and in a lot of photo supply stores because they leave permanent purple mark on whatever you’re testing. These don’t leave any mark at all. Basically what you do is you put a little drop of distilled water on the corner of what you’re trying to test, turn that strip face down straight on top of it, and put some hydroglader or cottonrad or cheesetop on top of that to weigh it down. Wait a few minutes, pick it off, and compare it to the chart. If you have a reading in our lab, anything that measures below a 5.5, retrieve it. Anything that measures above that we know it has a certain amount of life in it before it starts turning acidic to contaminate the rest of our collection. If you’re curious about that process that’s real simple to learn, and I think it’s explained in that purple book that we passed around for any of you that are interested in that. I’ll stop now, but if any of you have questions I’d be happy to stay and try and answer those for you.

Audience: Some of our, now our kids are 19 and 15, but some of their baby photographs have already yellowed. It’s evidently from the cheaper photograph company. Is that something that’s going too completely, is it just going to get to a certain point where it stays at that yellow stage and gets worse?

LS: If they’re colorful, what you’re going to eventually have left is just kind of some outlines that’ll be kind of degraded.
Audience: It’s just the paper that was used, or the album?

LS: If you took it to an inexpensive place to have it done it’s probably a combination of the paper in reaction to the dyes that were used to make the color in the image. Those dyes are pretty much unstable in most color photography. The dyes that they used in slides are more chemically stable and will last longer than coloring of the print. They tell me that a slide from a store copier should last quite a few years without significant degradation, but store copier means pretty cold storage, and pretty low relative humidity. Like low storage I’m talking about the 50 degrees, and a relative humidity of about 35%. So if you can’t achieve that you’re going to have a less amount of time.

There’s one type of slide that I think its called fiberchrome, and they think that should last 250-500 years. There are chemists working at Kodak and places like Kodak on producing more stable color photography film for sale to the public. That will come eventually, we don’t have it yet. The more IS phone number the more stable is generally true. There are other factors that can affect that though, so I wouldn’t want to say always something that would buy at 31,000 is going to last as long as something (?). But generically that’s true. Do you want to talk to her about the point you brought up?

Audience: Sorry I didn’t get to explain. The speed, the slower the film, probably I would say the more stable. If the film has to be very fast, then it doesn’t need much light, and that might mean that the chemicals might be faster reactant.

LS: It can be more subject to light damage later because it was exposed to less light in its creation and that’s part of the theory behind the point that this gentlemen made. Copying things for duplication in a book introduces a totally different technology than just photography. A lot of times you’re dealing with the quality of the printing mechanism, and you’re also dealing with the level of contrast in both the black and white, and color photographs, and the number of colors and shadings that are introduced into the color photograph in terms of reproducing it in another median. We have a problem sometimes when we microfilm something. Sometimes were microfilming a newspaper for example, and you know from looking at a newspaper there are some very dark parts and very light parts, and the machine that is reading the amount of light that should be shed onto that picture, that may be part of the printing process I’m not an expert in printing so I probably shouldn’t assume that, but it could be a similar problem that the machine that reads that reads kind of a happy medium. It doesn’t do as good a job on the lighter portions in a way from that medium or the dark proportions as least with filming. That’s a possible explanation to this.

Audience: I just had a family snapshot enlarged, and I expected that studio to be a good one, and I was very surprised. It took them a while to play around with the coloring and stuff. I am going to talk to them about it and find out what in the world happened because it is not even as good as the snapshot.

LS: Did you notice that chart that I passed around and how some of the images when you look at them under a microscope are little dots. Something that’s produced when is made out of those little dots, just like on a television screen, they have trouble making television screens bigger because the image on the television screen is made out of little dots called pixels, and when you expand those you loose a lot of the definition, and you don’t get a sharper picture. Most negatives that we have today commonly are 35mm negatives, and you have trouble blowing those up much to an 8x10 without losing some of the definition in a picture.

Audience: It was a 5x7 print.

LS: You probably got stages of copies. They probably made a 35mm negative cover your 5x7 print to duplicate it and blew it up from that little tiny negative to fit whatever size picture you need. The only other thing they could have done is to make it into a negative and then a positive for you, and that would cost you a lot of money.

Audience: Can I see the graph chart?

Audience: (?)

LS: I think you might be better off in Canada than in the United States because the (?) archives of Canada are who taught the archivist of the United States how to tip their photographs. They did a lot of the original research, and they were on the bandwagon first to get Kodak to do something about this product.

Audience: ... (?) available?

LS: It sure should be, especially scientific in some of the other things. If you have any trouble, write to your public archive of Canada, or whatever local branch off that might be near you. I’m sure they have one, every archivist I ever meet from Canada, and I’m just impressed to the bones. They are so welcoming and have such a good support group for each other. If you need the name of the expert in their country, Bob (?), and he works for the public archive of Canada.

Audience: Where would he be?

LS: At this point I know they have branch offices like my national archives do, if you’d write down your name and address for me and I’ll main you his address. I can’t remember which part of Canada he works in. He comes to the United States free world (?).

Audience:  I was wondering if you used 35mm cameras as slides and so forth, should you use color prints or should you use black and white prints to take pictures of pictures? Sometimes the color will look more age like.

LS: Black and white photography is chemically much more stable than any photo, and something that’s precious to you it’s always a good idea to make a black and white copy. What we do with our photography when we have some impressionists, the last thing we did it with, bless his heart, were all pictures from the Governors funeral. Those were all taken apart. We made black and white copies and just tried to label them the black and white copies in our computers as carefully as we could what the colors were in the original pictures because we know their going to stay. At least we can preserve the information in black and white.

Anybody else? Thank you all so much for coming. Enjoy the rest of your meeting, I sure have been.


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