Thursday, June 30, 2011

Prepared for Loss

I have floppy discs in my house that are genuinely floppy.  I probably haven’t owned a computer that could play them for over twenty years.  Nevertheless, I saved these floppy discs and now have no idea what’s on them.  If, by chance, I ever find an antique computer that can play them, I have no assurance that the data would still be accessible.

Built-in obsolescence seems to be the nature of the world.  Just as we’re not wired to last forever, neither are computers and all their electronic relatives.  At some point, it’s probably best to accept this – and learn to work around it.

I asked Tom Clareson , Senior Consultant for New Initiatives at LYRASIS, and Leigh A. Grinstead, Digital Services Consultant at LYRASIS, for advice about how to address issues of obsolescence.  I think what I really wanted was a strategy for keeping my preserved records up-to-date, accessible, and safe.  Their response is actually fairly hopeful, but it looks like it will take some conscientious effort, too.

“Museums, libraries and archives have tried to keep appropriate playback equipment in working order and most institutions are unable to do it.  Keeping your old digital cameras and the data cards on hand is one approach, but hardware manufacturers deliberately build in obsolescence.  The best plan is to keep backup copies in multiple formats, send a copy to a family member in a different region of the country, store a copy on your hard drive at home, and/or, for your most important items, keep them on a drive in a safe deposit box, as well as backups in ‘the Cloud.’

“You should attempt to keep both your software and operating systems up-to-date.  Keeping your images in multiple formats, both electronic and print for example, may also be helpful.

Also, it is wise to plan ahead for potential disasters.  This spring, we have seen so many examples of entire communities affected by floods, storms, and devastating tornadoes.  In instances like this, people who have organized their materials and electronically saved them off-site using one of ‘the Cloud’ services (like Dropbox) will be able to access their materials again, even if all their computers, phones, still cameras, video cameras, and scrapbooks are gone.”

For additional information on digital preservation, Leigh reminds us of one of the very best sites on the web:  “The Library of Congress has been working in the area of digital preservation for a long time and has been developing materials for the public some of which are described at their Digital Preservation page.  During preservation week (the first week of May) they presented a Preserving Your Personal Digital Memories webinar that was very interesting and worth visiting.”

© 2011 Lee Price

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Digital Legacy

Many internet users assume that our digital record becomes more-or-less permanent, with our every spontaneous comment permanently lodged into an ethereal archive.  Personally, I think it’s highly likely that our most embarrassing personal moments really are permanently carved into cyberspace.  Now I only wish I had faith that all the good things will be preserved, too.  In my pessimism, I tend to assume that the worst will be preserved and the best will be lost.

In my discussion with Tom Clareson , Senior Consultant for New Initiatives at LYRASIS, and Leigh A. Grinstead, Digital Services Consultant at LYRASIS, I asked about intentional efforts to preserve these new records of our lives.  After a loved one dies, how can we best preserve their digital legacy:  their e-mails, Facebook page, YouTube videos, website, etc.?  It turned out that I was pushing the envelope with this line of inquiry.  These are areas that the experts are still wrestling with:

“Thinking about YouTube videos, it is likely that the creator probably still has movie files on a computer hard drive and those can be copied and migrated forward over time.  The videos that appear on YouTube are highly compressed and it would be best to keep the first generation file and try to preserve that rather than trying to keep the public or ‘access version.’

“The Library of Congress has just entered into a landmark agreement with Twitter to archive all Twitter feeds.  But for other social media, like Facebook, there are enormous privacy issues associated with the material that is being created. Each Facebook account is set up with unique user agreements about who can see what material so the likelihood that Facebook pages could be archived in the
same way that Twitter feeds are to be archived is very unlikely.

Facebook posts and other social media forms are ephemeral in nature.  As creators and family historians, I think we need to ask ourselves what it is that we are truly trying to capture with this information.  For the YouTube materials, you might have access to the movie file but for other social media forms, this really is the web archiving frontier.”

© 2011 Lee Price

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Preserving the Memorial

My sister Jamie made a beautiful Windows Moviemaker memorial that celebrated the life of her husband through family photographs and a soundtrack of some of the meaningful songs of his life.  Jamie saved the memorial on a bunch of DVDs.  A year later, some of the DVDs work fine but others won’t play on any of our computers.  Their content is already inaccessible.

I presented this situation to Tom Clareson , Senior Consultant for New Initiatives at LYRASIS, and Leigh A. Grinstead, Digital Services Consultant at LYRASIS.  I’m sure everyone’s had the experience of unexpectedly losing unsaved material when there’s a sudden loss of power or other glitch.  That’s to be expected (and a good reminder to save frequently).  However, it is very disconcerting to lose material that feels like it has been permanently saved.

Tom and Leigh started by reminding me that DVDs were never built to be long-term storage containers.  “DVDs, like CDs and flash drives, are all excellent media for the transportation of digital files from one computer to another.  But any electronic file that you want to retain access to long term is something that should be put on a hard drive.  That hard drive should be backed up, and for home use those files should be backed up in multiple places.

“So, another family member in a different region of the country, (at least on a different power grid) may also keep a copy on their hard drive at home. You should also consider a back up in ‘the Cloud’ – commercial services like Dropbox that truly store your data ‘off site.’ Now, any commercial system could disappear overnight, so having multiple copies in a stable file format is the best chance you have to preserve the data long term.

© 2011 Lee Price

Monday, June 20, 2011

Born-Digital Material

The composition of a family collection changes over time.  From the mid-1800s forward, photographs enter family collections, initially posed in black-and-white.  Kodak’s Brownie box revolutionized cameras in the early 1900s, introducing the spontaneity of snapshots.  Color photography emerged early but took a long time to move into the mainstream of family collections.  Then you hit the 1970s, the era of the Polaroid.

Now everything is digital.  Digital is VERY different.  However, while items like digital images (and digital videos, websites, Facebook pages, etc.) may require very different storage than photographs, their preservation needs will still need to be addressed.  Eventually you’re going to want to ensure that our new media is adequately preserving a record of our lives.

Over the next two weeks, I will be sharing a discussion with Tom Clareson, Senior Consultant for New Initiatives at LYRASIS*, and Leigh A. Grinstead, Digital Services Consultant at LYRASIS, about the nature of born-digital preservation.  As the term “born-digital” is a new one,  I started at the beginning, asking them to define it.

“Born-Digital material is something that has not existed in another format or hard copy before. It’s produced or captured in a digital format first—a letter typed directly in Word, rather than being handwritten.  A family photograph taken with a digital camera, an oral history shot on a digital movie camera—or, an event captured on a cell phone, like the images of tornados shot from a front porch.  These are all examples of 'born-digital' materials. What cultural heritage institutions (Museums, Libraries, Archives, Special collections and Historical Societies) have done over the years is to work with their staff, and volunteers to adopt best practices for image and audio capture.  File formats like PDF-A, TIFF or RAW files, and WAV files are all standard, stable, non-compressed formats that have been around for a long time.  They have been adopted by numerous institutions and institutions know how to deal with these files.

“When cultural heritage institutions receive smaller jpg files or mp3 files, depending on the material and its importance, they may convert the file into a TIFF or WAV file.  But not all files justify the time, or the storage space.  For a home environment, you might take only a few of your most important images and save them as TIFF files.

“If I consider myself the family historian, when it
becomes time to invest in a new camera, that is when I would invest in a higher-end digital SLR camera that can capture in TIFF or RAW so that moving forward I have digital files that will be easy to maintain in the future.

“The Library of Congress has been working in the area of digital preservation for a long time and has been developing materials for the public some of which are described at their Digital Preservation page.  During preservation week (the first week of May) they presented a Preserving Your Personal Digital Memories webinar that was very interesting and worth visiting.”

*  The nation’s largest regional non-profit membership organization serving libraries, LYRASIS helps libraries operate more effectively by providing expanded access to valuable resources and professional expertise in content creation and management.

© 2011 Lee Price

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Ghost Images on the Sketch Pad

CCAHA Senior Conservator Soyeon Choi examines
charcoal sketch pad.

Some of my father’s best charcoal sketches are in a sketch pad that’s bound with a metal spiral binding along the top edge.  When you open the sketch pad, you see the original image on the bottom sheet and a reversed ghost image on the paper that’s been lying directly on top of it.

This can’t be good for long-term preservation.  Charcoal is a very attractive artistic medium, but its tendency to transfer and smudge makes it notoriously difficult to preserve.

Soyeon Choi, Senior Conservator at the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts, agrees that the current sketch pad situation is not healthy.  Fortunately, the artwork itself has survived its 60+ year history in relatively good shape.  The transfer has been direct, with seemingly little smudging on the original drawings.

Soyeon recommends disbinding the sketchpad and saving each individual piece.  She works the spiral binding to determine how to pry each of the little circlets open.  This one is a little tricky so she adds, “If it’s a problem, just cut the binding right down the top.  Then carefully pry it open and delicately remove the paper.”

Soyeon suggests putting each of the sketches in a mat.  (“Eight ply mat would be beautiful;  four ply would be okay.”)  The object is to avoid that paper-on-paper contact that caused the ghosting.  The mat will protect the artwork from further transfer and smudging.  The mats can be either stored in acid-free boxes or framed and displayed. 
“Store them or display them.  They will look great,” Soyeon assures me.

Special thanks to Soyeon Choi for her consultations during the past two weeks!

Original charcoal portrait by Art Price and the ghost of
its image on the adjacent paper surface.

© 2011 Lee Price

Monday, June 13, 2011

Bug Nests, Spiders, and Silverfish

The bug nest!

I don’t know where my parents stored the rolled nudes while I was growing up.  I have a feeling they were kept discreetly out of sight of curious children (that would be me and my sister) and their friends.  Wherever they were stored (basement, garage, or under bed), I’m afraid they suffered some indignities.

As Soyeon Choi, Senior Conservator at the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts, unrolled the first of the oversized artworks, she exclaimed, “Oh, a bug nest!”  Quickly, she used a natural rubber sponge to delicately brush off the little nest of cobwebs.  I asked her if there were any signs of active pest infestation and she said no.  These cobwebs could easily be decades old.

Later while unrolling more of the pieces at home, I discovered more cobwebs, as well as a few dead spiders and silverfish, buried within the rolls of artwork.  Fortunately, the pests appear to have done little damage to the paper.

CCAHA Senior Conservator Soyeon Choi
examining an oversized charcoal work
on paper.
But while these individual pests may be responsible for only minor damage, the rolled nudes as a whole could really benefit from a little loving care.  According to Soyeon, they exhibit surface dirt, foxing, acidic tape mends, and tears.  However, Soyeon assured me that a good paper conservator can address all these problems and make them look nearly as good as new.  Six decades of neglect can be largely reversed if the problems are properly and professionally addressed.

© 2011 Lee Price

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Introduction to Friable Media

CCAHA Senior Conservator Soyeon Choi unrolls a
rolled charcoal sketch.

Both of my parents liked to work in charcoal.  My father filled several notebooks with his charcoal sketches and my mother worked frequently in charcoal, including the 50 rolled nude drawings that she drew while attending Traphagen School of Fashion.  Preservation of these charcoal pieces poses a considerable challenge, largely for the simple reason that charcoal smudges so easily.

In the language of conservation, charcoal is a friable medium.  This means it has a tendency to crumble, detaching from its original surface and easily transferring to another.  Place a clean sheet of paper over a charcoal drawing and some charcoal will invariably rub off onto the clean surface.

The decision to roll up my mother’s charcoal nudes was an unfortunate one.  With the scrolling, the paper became in constant contact with it reverse side (the “verso”) and any jostling in storage increased the rate of transfer.  Soyeon Choi, Senior Conservator at the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts, recommends that I invest in a new storage strategy for the rolled nudes.  Ideally, she says, I should have each sheet of paper humidified, flattened, and matted, and then store them flat.  Unfortunately, the expense rules out this option for me, at least for now.

So Soyeon suggests a second option, not as ideal as storing them flat but better than returning them to the plastic trash bag that has accommodated them for many years.  “You can get a good acid-free box – ideally custom-sized so they don’t shift around – from a respected supplier like University Products or Gaylord.  Place the scrolled papers inside the box to create a single layer along the bottom.  You can probably comfortably fit around ten into a single box.”  She emphasizes that there should be no weight from the top.  “They’ve been squashed enough.  You can keep them rolled and safe in a box until you’re ready to upgrade to an even better approach.”

Rolled paper placed in a single layer in acid-free box.  Ideally,
boxes can be purchased that are custom-sized to fit the paper
length, preventing unnecessary jostling.

© 2011 Lee Price

Monday, June 6, 2011

Damage from Improper Storage

CCAHA Senior Conservator Soyeon Choi examining a
charcoal sketch on oversized rolled paper.

Back in 1949, my mother drew approximately 50 charcoal sketches of nude models for one of her fashion school classes.  The sketches were done on oversized flat paper.  At some point, these pieces were rolled up like scrolls for easy storage.  Then, perhaps a decade or two later, these rolled papers were shoved into a too-small plastic trash bag, crushing and deforming the artwork to an even greater degree.

I brought six of these rolled nudes into the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts for professional examination by Senior Conservator Soyeon Choi.  Soyeon and I carefully unrolled the first of them on the accession table.  She used heavy transparent acrylic blocks to hold the paper down, preventing it from scrolling back up.

“This paper is significantly scalloped,” Soyeon said.  “It’s become very distorted from being stored like this.”  We looked at each of the six oversized pieces in turn.  Some have retained a neat tube shape while others were somewhat crushed in storage.  It was discouraging to see the damage.

I asked Soyeon if anything can be done to return these pieces to their original appearance.  “To a great degree, yes,” she said.  “We could remove much of this distortion by humidification and flattening.  We would use the vapor chamber for the humidification.  I think we could make them look very nice.”

But I expressed my concern that it would be expensive to have 50 oversized pieces treated in the lab – more than we could afford.  Soyeon thought about this, then reasonably suggested:  “I would recommend picking your favorite for a full treatment.  Then you can store the others and maybe treat some more in the future.”

© 2011 Lee Price

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Rolled Nudes

Charcoal sketch by June Anderson.

Cross-posted on June and Art.  Please note that this entry does contain charcoal sketches of nude figures.

Flashback:  Back in spring 1949, June took a course at Traphagen School of Fashion where she learned to draw the nude human body.  Women models posed fully nude.  Male models were drawn nude when depicted from the rear.  Frontal views of men featured discreet coverings.  The drawings were oversized and were probably rolled into cylinders for storage soon after they were drawn.  The course ended in late May;  June met Art that Memorial Day.

At some point, the rolled nudes were all stuffed into a large plastic bag.  They disappeared into long-term storage.  I first looked at them a year ago, pulling out several to see what they were.  I didn’t look at many because they were unwieldy and fragile.  There are approximately fifty of these rolled nudes in our family collection.

Last week, I brought six of the rolled nudes into the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts for examination and treatment recommendations by Senior Conservator Soyeon Choi.  I selected the six pieces randomly, sight unseen, and carried them to the Center in a black plastic trash bag.

Soyeon unrolled the oversized drawings, one by one.  She used heavy transparent acrylic blocks to hold down the edges, preventing them from scrolling back up.  For the first time, I could see the nudes clearly.  According to the grades on most of them, this is “A” work.

All charcoal sketches by June Anderson.
© 2011 Lee Price

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Framing the Diploma

My mother never displayed her Traphagen School of Fashion diploma.  It was never matted nor framed.  At some point, it slipped into a box for storage.

Long-term storage has been kind to this diploma.  It’s in good shape.  Probably if it had been matted and framed 61 years ago, it would be in poorer shape today – it would show more of the damaging effects of humidity, temperature, and light.

Fortunately, preservation strategies have advanced considerably over the past half-century.  With proper matting and framing, a diploma like this can be safely displayed without significant preservation concerns.

Jessica Makin, Manager of Housing and Framing at the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts, recommends a thoughtful investment in matting and framing when approaching an aging document like this diploma.  For preservation reasons, she cautions against purchasing a cheap off-the-shelf commercial frame for a job like this.  Treat yourself (and your current family and future descendents) to a quality presentation that simultaneously preserves and protects the document.

For this particular diploma, Jessie suggests –

For the mat:  An 8 ply thick mat made of 100% ragboard that contains zeolites (molecular pollutant traps).

For the glazing:  An acrylic UV glazing that will protect from 98% of all harmful ultraviolet rays.

For the frame:  A frame that is sufficiently deep to adequately protect and support the object.  Jessie cautions that many off-the-shelf frames are too shallow,
potentially capable of causing long-term damage.

Since quality framing is an expense, my wife and I usually put off matting and framing to a special occasion – and then give the framed item as a gift.  Most recently, I had a set of silverware framed in a shadow box for my wife’s birthday, preserving and celebrating a gift that she had received while a young girl.

© 2011 Lee Price