Celebrating Preservation Week: The Shanghai Jewish Refugee Collection

This is the
second in a series of posts celebrating Preservation Week. (Read the first one here.) Established in 2010,
this week was created to raise awareness of preservation issues and collections
in need of care. Through these posts we aim to highlight preservation challenges
and methods here at LMU and in the greater cultural heritage community.

SJRC_001I
couldn’t help but be intrigued when I stumbled upon a collection of small boxes
labeled “Shanghai Jewish Community.” Stored in the Archives & Special
Collection’s vault, these boxes of photographic negatives and prints had sat
virtually untouched for many years.  It’s not that they were neglected in terms
of care. These artifacts were and are kept in acid free envelopes within acid
free boxes and stored at around 52 degrees Fahrenheit, a preservation standard. It’s also not that the department was unaware of their existence (though I was);
it is simply that the materials had yet to be thoroughly processed—not an
uncommon circumstance with a collection of LMU’s size.

Curious, I began
delving into the contents of these boxes as well as the historical context of
the images —Jewish refugees living in Shanghai during World War II. Why
Shanghai? Shanghai had an open door policy—no visa or passport required—and
thus became a bastion as many nations, the US included, limited the number of
European Jews that could enter their countries.

Photographed and
donated by Werner von Boltenstern, these images represent Jewish community life,
refugee documentation, Chinese Shanghai citizens, Japanese occupying soldiers
and the city itself. The historical and cultural value of this collection is,
in my opinion, immense. Taken between 1937-1949, the negatives, which make up
the majority of the collection, are a hodgepodge of mediums and formats—gelatin
dry plate, cellulose nitrate, cellulose acetate, sheet film, roll film, 35mm to
3”x4” and what have you.

Unfortunately, despite the measures taken to
preserve them, the fact is these negatives, will (if they haven’t already) begin
to deteriorate.  In short, glass negatives are fragile and grow increasingly
brittleSJRC_002
with time. Their silver halide, which essentially makes up the image, is prone
to oxidization and thus fading. Acetate too may deteriorate and, as it does,
undergo what is known as vinegar syndrome—a highly unpleasant
situation, to say the least. And finally nitrate, beyond having deterioration
issues, is also highly combustible to the point that it may do so
spontaneously. Essentially what we are talking about here are unstable
materials for which the deterioration process has been slowed down but not
stopped by the various preservation methods mentioned above.

“Digitize
them” you may be thinking and indeed we have, just recently. But digitization
is easier said than done, especially when you are talking about scanning
negatives. They are tedious and fragile and are often scanned at particularly
high resolutions, which is slow.  Then there are things like quality control and
cropping, meaning the removal of extraneous space around the scanned image.
Both of these tasks take up a surprising amount of time. Just to give you some
perspective, working approximately 25 hours per week, it has taken around two
and a half months to scan and crop 553 negatives and 113 prints…and scanning is
just the first stage. Now we need to concern ourselves with metadata, the data
that will describe the images and enable users to search for them within LMU’s
digital library.  This will likely take a few months more.

MenI
am personally very pleased, even relieved, that we have been able to digitize
this historically and culturally rich collection.  Having said that, I believe
it is important to state that we have not, in my opinion, actually committed an
act of preservation, at least not physical preservation.  After all, digitizing
the images will have no effect on the original analog artifacts; it won’t
increase their lifespan. In actuality what we have done is create new objects,
digital objects, and these objects will now (here is the fun part) need
to be preserved through a process known as digital
preservation
.

An act of preservation or not, digitizing this
collection was essential; for while scanning the negatives will not save the
precious analog originals, it will, technology willing, preserve the images they
contain.  Furthermore, and this is huge, digitization facilitates access, be it
to rare materials that would otherwise be accessible to only a few, to objects
that are being lost to deterioration or simply to objects in a difficult viewing
format; an example being photographic negatives.

Children

The Werner
von Boltenstern Shanghai Jewish Refugee Collection
, as it is now known,
will eventually be available in LMU’s digital library. In the meantime the
digital library team will conduct research, add metadata and continue to make
new discoveries.  For information on this or any other special collection please
contact the Department of Archives & Special Collections.

Images from the top
down:
1)
Acid free boxes that hold the collection
2) A sampling of cellulose and glass
negatives
3)
Men from the Jewish community standing in line as a Japanese soldier looks on
(c1938-1939)
4) Children from the Shanghai Jewish community
(c1938-1939)