Sunday, October 11, 2009

Part One: Visit to the NLM or How You Determine Whether or Not It's Time to Call Hazmat

On Friday, I went to visit the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, MD. Click here to read a an overview of the NLM. It's right outside D.C. and except for the less than fun traffic, was a great visit. I sat through some lectures, met some great people and got to see a really, really, really old book, a 12th century arabic text called the Razi -for short.

In the morning I met up with the Assistant Fellows and four experts from the library lectured on four different aspects of cataloging rare materials at the NLM.  One lecture was on cataloging images, one on cataloging rare printed material, another on finding aids, and lastly a lecture on cataloging historical and rare film. While I was truly impressed by the level of knowledge required in order to catalog and process these materials, the historical film lecture both fascinated and struck fear in that part of my heart that loves archives.Why?  Two words: Nitrate Films. 

We all know that theater fires were fairly common and quite often very deadly at the inception of film.  I kind of had a vague understanding that this had something to do with the heat from the projectors or maybe something about the film itself.  But, Dr. Dosch, the Collection Manager for the Historical AV Collection, has had first hand experience with this highly unstable explosive based film material that requires Hazmat removal, and vaulted almost ice cold temperature for storage.  According to Dr. Dosch these films can spontaneously combust, require very little oxygen to burn, and seem to explode and burn at lightening speed.  However, since they produce a beautiful image, contain rare and unique contents, on occasion they are still kept (mostly in very secure locations).  Dr. Dosch wasn't sure whether she had nitrate films in her collection when she came to the NLM.  Many of them are not labeled as such. She decided that there was one simple way they could determine the makeup of the unmarked films in their collection. And so, armed with tongs, a lighter and a mere sliver of suspect film, Dr. Dosch and a colleague went out to the NLM parking lot one day, and lit the film on fire.  It exploded into a stream of fire that reached as high as the 5th floor offices and a Hazmat team was called in.

But, this is the part that gets me the most, while all fingers toes and eyebrows remained miraculously in tact, it was out of pure luck that the films had managed to survive in the archives until then with no incident. How many archives might have these films in them, and not know it? What about other places?  What about other items that may not be quite so dangerous, but still pose a risk to staff and patrons?  I mean, we used to play,  Pass the Mercury, in elementary science class before they realized it is extremely toxic.  Don't get me wrong, I know that most archives are strapped for cash, and item level processing is becoming less and less popular, (these two are not always related and different issues for a different post), etc.  But it never really occurred to me that not knowing what's in your collection can actually be PHYSICALLY dangerous! Huh!

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