National Archive backstage

A glimpse into the National Archive’s restoration studio

The National Archive is in the middle of a huge process of conservation and digitization. At the beginning of June 2008, the National Archive – in collaboration with Sound and Vision and Filmmuseum (now: EYE) – published invitations to tender for the digitization of the European photo collections. Liesbeth Keijser, project manager of conservation and digitization at the National Archive for Images for the Future, gives a guided tour through the professional restoration studio of the National Archive. In this studio restorers and apprentices restore the archive material with the greatest care.

Restoration: ‘tunnels’ and the smell of acid:
The National Archive accommodates approximately 80.000 books and 1.2 million photos, 300.000 historical maps and 100 kilometers of archive material in boxes. It concerns private and business collections, but mostly archives of the national government. The photographic material is placed on different carriers – glass, negatives, albums – and is stored in different ways. This requires a variety of restoration techniques.
Keijser shows a historical album wherein the professional photographer has attached the photographs with tape. The tape has to be peeled off meticulously before the photographs can be digitized. Photo after photo… some photographs are in an extreme state of decay. Keijser shows acetate negatives with ‘tunneling’ where the acetate carrier has shrunk. These tunnels come into being because the gelatin with the image does not shrink. This decay is called acid syndrome, due to the acid-like stench it gives off. The restorers have to soak off the old carrier and then transfer the gelatin layer with the image to a new polyester carrier. The National Archive has frozen 70.000 acetate negatives to stop further decay. They are stored in a storage and packing freezer next to the fritters and the oranges.

Pulp filler en Hyper Spectral Imager
Keijser explains that the National Archive is a forerunner in this field of research. A machine that makes enumerations in the gelatin of the negative with a laser has been developed especially for the National Archive. A unique number is consequently indissolubly connected to the object and treatment of the acetate negatives can take place on a great scale without loss of identity. A great deal of the work will be put out to contract, because the National Archive can’t take on all the work.

Another showpiece is the “Paper pulp filler”. The VOC-collection, for example, is suffering from ink corrosion: the documents are simply rusting away. Ink corrosion is very common in archives that have been developed and stored in the tropics. The warm and humid circumstances stimulate the decay. Insects and moulds have also frequently harassed these archives and have created holes in the paper. The National Archive fills these holes with paper-pulp, with the help of the pulp filler.
Keijser proudly shows the “Hyper Spectral Imager”, a kind of X-ray eye that can see through documents. This process enables analysis – for example - of later additions to the texts and can also indicate decay at an early stage.

Digitization and future steps
In 2008 the National Archive will have digitized around 35.000 photographs and negatives in high resolution. Currently quite a few of them have been digitized in low resolution and disclosed in the image bank. The “caretakers” of the collections are usually in charge of the digitization themselves. The National Archive is demanding and believes that the collections should also be available in high resolution. According to Keijser, the companies that have been approached for the job up to now have difficulty meeting the demands.
After the tender, the National Archive will continue its activities on a greater scale. An external examiner has made an analysis of – and a priorization within the collections. Making the digitized collections accessible to the public is the challenge that awaits the National Archive. Petra Schoen, Josefien Schuurman and Maaike Thonen form a team, working on the establishment of a project in which volunteers assist in the metadating of the material.