Firsts and Frontiers

Latest update February 15, 2019 Started on April 24, 2018

For 130 years the National Geographic Society has been on the
forefront of exploration, scientific discoveries, and documenting the world around us, in the process creating a treasure trove of knowledge about our planet. So how do we go about maintaining this knowledge, ensuring that people will still be able to access it, 130 years from now and beyond?

April 24, 2018
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In The Field

The team here at National Geographic has been working hard to continue with our mission to catalogue and digitize some of the most significant areas of our collection, including the Aquascope, Stratosphere, and Space Collection materials that we wrote about a few months ago. We are also continuing to image at-risk film that has vinegar syndrome, as discussed in the last post, from the Volkmar Wentzel Collection. It occured to me belatedly that we never told the story behind many (though not all) of the materials that exhibit vinegar syndrome; though these objects have deteriorated, we’re lucky to have them at all.

These materials, along with items that are still in relatively good condition, were rescued from weeding by editor Volkmar “Kurt” Wentzel in the 1970s, when the National Geographic photo archive was still used as much more of an “image library” for publication needs, rather than as a valuable historical resource and record of Nat Geo’s work to gather and disseminate geographic knowledge. Wentzel rescued approximately 12,000 photos from being thrown out and adopted them into his own collection, where they lived until the early 2000s. When Wentzel passed away, his wife generously donated the collection back to National Geographic. Unfortunately, lack of climate control for many years triggered the onset of vinegar syndrome in many of these photos, hence our need to keep them in cold storage and digitize as quickly as we can.

Though many of the photos in the collection are by other National Geographic staff members and photographers, we do have quite a few shot by Wentzel himself. Last Friday, we digitized a batch of images from a National Geographic Magazine feature from 1954 titled “Man’s New Servant, the Friendly Atom,” a story that delved into America’s optimistic postwar love affair with atomic energy. Wentzel’s photography of work in Oak Ridge, Tennessee and Brookhaven, Long Island’s nuclear power plants evokes both the promise and the incredible fragility of the “still-mysterious energy” that article author F. Barrows Colton described as “an elusive and ghostlike thing.”

Wentzel’s photographs, which illustrate the many uses of atomic energy, evoke in the modern viewer both a sense of nostalgia and a certain nervousness. Nuclear power never quite took off as a major energy solution, in part due to several high-profile nuclear disasters, but in an age where increasingly alarming data on climate change makes our future uncertain, the atom might look a bit friendlier again.

One of the coolest parts about this project is the “behind-the-scenes” nature of digitizing all of the photographs in a batch and wondering about the stories that ultimately didn’t end up published in NGM. Take a look at some of the unpublished images from Wentzel’s tour of U.S. nuclear facilities--what piques your interest?

Learn more about Kurt Wentzel and his remarkable career with National Geographic over at Long Exposure: Our Friend Wentzel's 50 Year Adventure as my colleagues Sara Manco and Melissa Sagen tell his story.

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Our mission to digitize the National Geographic archives is now approximately five months underway, and as we noted in our last post, we have been tackling some pretty exciting projects. From outer space to the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay, we’ve been working hard to inventory and digitize key moments in National Geographic exploration history. Within this mission, one of our top priorities has become digitizing film that is deteriorating quickly due to vinegar syndrome. We are essentially in a race against time to ensure that these images don’t disappear from our archive altogether!

What is vinegar syndrome? Why is it a problem?

This chemical process specifically affects cellulose acetate film, which was introduced in the early twentieth century to replace nitrate film, a highly flammable and unstable film base. Though this “safety film” was much more stable and safe to use than nitrate, film manufacturers and photographers discovered that acetate film degraded quickly in certain conditions, specifically heat and humidity. By the time this degradation was reported and studied extensively, acetate film was in widespread use across the world.

Vinegar syndrome is the common term for the chemical breakdown that occurs when acetate film bases start to decompose, named for the vinegary smell that accompanies the release of acetic acid. The deterioration causes the plastic film base to become brittle and misshapen, thereby causing the base to separate from the gelatin emulsion (which forms the actual photographic image itself). Once it has started, this chemical reaction will continue, with visible decay increasing drastically once the decomposition reaches a certain point. Though keeping film in cold storage can slow the process of decomposition, acetate film with vinegar syndrome will eventually become unusable and the photographic image will be lost.

Yikes! That sounds pretty bad. How many photographs are at risk?

Our Senior Photo Archivist, Sara Manco, has taken steps to delay the spread and progress of vinegar syndrome in our materials by placing the film that is showing symptoms into cold storage. She has also taken the precaution of quarantining the materials with the most advanced decay by placing them in separate boxes that are wrapped in archival lining and sealed in plastic bags. Overall, there are approximately 3,000-3,500 pieces of film in a state of advancing decay. We are prioritizing these materials for digitization by implementing “Fish and Chips Fridays” (get it?) in the imaging lab.

So what’s the method for digitizing these materials?

In order to keep the deteriorating film quarantined and safely away from other objects that could catch this syndrome, we made the decision to dedicate Fridays to this particular digitization workflow. We chose Fridays so that we could be sure to thoroughly clean our equipment and any surfaces in the lab that came into contact with vinegar syndrome film, and to air out the space over the weekend. As you may guess, it can be quite unpleasant to spend long periods of time in a small room filled with smelly film! In addition to causing harm to other objects, vinegar syndrome can also cause skin and mucous-membrane irritation, so it’s important to limit the amount of time our team spends interacting with the materials. At the end of the day, the safety of our staff is just as important as the safety of the objects we are trying to preserve.

On a typical Fish and Chips Friday, our Project Manager, Julie, retrieves a box of film from cold storage for a quick collation and inventory while the Digitization Specialist, Kendall, sets up the camera equipment. While we would typically acclimate these materials to room temperature over time, the objects we are currently digitizing are so sufficiently degraded that we have made the judgement call that there is no real advantage to acclimation to prevent further degradation. Once the materials are collated and recorded in our scanning log, we are ready to begin digitization.

Because we are working with degraded materials, it is important to balance speed, careful object handling, condition reporting as necessary, and precise imaging procedure. To ensure that we are able to meet all of these goals, we work in a two-person team to stage materials, digitize, and rehouse. Using this two-person team, we can usually get through approximately 150-200 objects in the space of two to three hours. Once we finish up for the day, Kendall performs a quick quality assurance check to make sure nothing is out of focus or otherwise in need of rescanning. When everything looks good, the objects are whisked back to cold storage and we begin post-processing.

What comes after digitization?

Because the majority of the vinegar syndrome objects are negatives, we have to do some extra processing work--aside from the usual cropping, straightening, and export--to produce a faithful content reproduction of the image. Processing these images out and ensuring that the appropriate metadata is connected to the image file usually takes even more time than actually digitizing the objects (which is true for all of our projects!). However, at the end of the process we are able to store both a faithful object reproduction of the film itself as well as a content reproduction of the photographic image for future researchers to use. Using appropriate editing tools, we will even be able to digitally remove some of the damage from vinegar syndrome deterioration for a digital “restoration” of the artist’s intended rendering if necessary.

Though we can’t turn back time on the damage to these objects, we can make sure that the digital reproduction is available even after the physical object is unusable. The collection includes images from all around the world taken by National Geographic photographers depicting a wide range of subjects, from daily life in Kuala Lumpur to rural landscapes in British Columbia. In addition to beautiful imagery, they are documents of a world that, in many places, no longer exists. Understanding and accessing this past is an important part of National Geographic’s mission to further geographic knowledge and global awareness, and the Digital Preservation Archive team is excited to engage in this important work.

Further reading on Vinegar Syndrome:

Vinegar Syndrome, National Film Preservation Foundation:

Acetate Film Base Deterioration - The Vinegar Syndrome, Image Permanence Institute:

Vinegar Syndrome, AIC Wiki:

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In celebration of World Digital Preservation Day, we wanted to provide an update on our progress so far with the Digital Preservation Archive, as well as showcase some of the other historic National Geographic expeditions that our Library + Archives team has posted about on Open Explorer:

  • Our first big undertaking for digitization has been the photographic collection for the National Geographic Society-U.S. Army Air Corps Stratosphere Flights. We’ve completed scanning and cleaned up metadata for B&W prints that have been stored in photo albums, and the next step will be to perform quality control before sending the scans to cloud storage. Negatives and textual documents are next on-deck to be digitized.

  • The Apollo program continues to be our focus for digitizing our materials related to space exploration. Inventories have been completed for Apollo missions 4 through 17, and are continuing for supporting materials such as astronaut training and the Lunar Orbiter program. Unpublished photographic materials for Apollo 4 through Apollo 7 have been scanned, and Apollo 8 is in progress – look out for an update on our To the Moon and Back expedition in anticipation of Apollo 8’s 50th anniversary later in December!

  • We’ve also been working on inventorying our collection of Aquascope materials, both photographic and textual. It’s a relatively small collection, but many of the unpublished 35mm slides were not kept in any particular order (disrespect des fonds?), which has made organization a bit tricky. When we’ve completed the Aquascope materials, we’ll have a wonderful collection of high-quality scans featuring underwater photography from Chesapeake Bay.

  • Fish and Chips Fridays is our dedicated time for digitizing high-priority materials that are suffering from vinegar syndrome. Stay tuned for an upcoming behind-the-scenes post about this important work.

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Our expedition really begins with the unveiling of our brand new Phase One iXG 100MP camera! As with any digitization project, we need to be able to produce high-quality digital images of our physical materials, so this camera is a key part of the DPA project. In addition to all of the NG staff that helped to acquire and set up our new equipment, we've also received lots of training and assistance from Wayne Cozzolino and Spencer Zidarich of Digital Transitions.

This video shows us getting the camera operational and a glimpse of the Capture One software we're using to process our image files. We'll be sharing more posts from behind the scenes as we continue with our digitization project.

Filming and editing credit: Steve Pickard

People across the globe are eagerly waiting to discover more treasures from the NG's archives :-) Back in December 2017, only about 20 percent of the photography archive had been digitized ( Wishing you all the best in this exciting endeavor!

Expedition Background

The Digital Preservation Archive (DPA) project will be an exploration
of how we can achieve the goal of maintaining the National Geographic Society's institutional knowledge and sharing it with the world. Our aim is to develop a workflow that efficiently adapts legacy archival collections to preservation-quality digital surrogates in a consistent manner. This will aid in the preservation of physical materials by limiting the need to remove these materials from storage, increase discoverability of archival materials through the capture of robust metadata, and allow for access by people across the globe for educational and research purposes.

Although we are not venturing outside the walls of National Geographic HQ, we still consider this to be very much an expedition. Much planning and funding has gone into making the DPA a possibility, and we are stepping into the unknown somewhat by taking on a digitization project of this magnitude. We’ll be documenting our progress, celebrating our accomplishments, and not hiding our missteps -- this is a learning experience for all of us! We look forward to having you join us on our journey.


Conal -- great launch of our project! We have incredible stories hidden in our collections and we are excited to reveal them over the course of our work and share them with the world.

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