Danger: Your Photo Archive May Kill You

Think of the world’s most dangerous jobs. What comes to mind? Perhaps “firefighter”? “Police officer”? “War correspondent”? How about “archivist”?

Surprised? Archivists get a reputation for being glasses-wearing, detail-oriented stewards of musty letters, books and documents. But in reality, archiving can be downright deadly. My company, Gado Images, works with organizations worldwide to help them digitize and monetize their archives. As a result, we’ve seen a wide range of flammable, poisonous and otherwise lethal artifacts. Here are a few of the scariest.

Burning Film Which Nothing Can Extinguish

Ever wonder why all your film reels are labeled “Safety Film”? What could possibly be dangerous about a 35mm transparency?


A box of Kodachrome 8mm safety film. /Gado.

A lot, it turns out. Modern film is made with cellulose, plus acetate or polyester. Both of these additives are relatively benign. As acetate film ages, for example, the worst outcome is that some of the stock turns into acetic acid (vinegar, to the layperson). It gives old film a musty, vinegary smell, but is decidedly non-deadly.

Before acetate, though, film was often made with another additive: nitrate. You may recognize nitrate as a component of nitroglycerin, a major ingredient in dynamite (and a plot device in a very bad nineties movie).


Nitrate film is both incredibly flammable and exquisitely unstable. Especially as it ages, it will ignite with little more prompting than a casual shake or knock. Sometimes it ignites for no reason at all.

Once nitrate film catches fire, it literally cannot be put out. A classic training film shows a reel of nitrate film burning while fully submerged in water. The stuff is so dangerous that projection rooms used to be lined in asbestos to keep nitrate fires contained. A 1929 nitrate film fire in Scotland killed 69 people, and smaller theater fires were common through much of the early 20th century.

On the archival side, nitrate film is clearly not something to mess around with; a burning roll of nitrate film can easily take out a whole archive (and its archivist) if not handled properly. The tricky bit, though, is that some of the greatest treasures of film were shot on nitrate. No one is going to throw out the original print of Gone With the Wind, even if it could potentially kill them.


Nitrate films in a brick storage vault at the National Archives, ca. 1935. /US National Archives /Gado

Enter archivists. Most archives won’t touch nitrate film, but a brave few specialize in it. These archives store nitrate film in special concrete-lined, refrigerated, fireproof vaults. They often keep each reel in a separate, reinforced cubbyhole, so that if one artifact combusts, it won’t destroy the whole collection. Still, accidents happen; a devastating 1978 nitrate fire at the National Archives injured 18 people and wiped out millions of feet of film. So be glad next time you unpack a roll of Velvia and see the “Safety” label!


Staying with the category of fire, flaming artifacts aren’t the only thing in an archive that might kill you. Sometimes the process of putting out a fire can be deadlier than the fire itself.

In a normal building, you can fight fires with a sprinkler system. If a fire starts, the sprinklers switch on, water rains down, and the fire goes out. You end up with damp employees and perhaps a few ruined computers, but everyone generally comes out okay. In archives, though, sprinklers are a no-no. One small fire (or worse, a false alarm) could soak and destroy centuries of history.

Instead of sprinklers, many archives use what are called “gaseous fire suppression systems.” These work by flooding a burning room with a non-reactive gas (originally Halon, and now the less-ozone-destroying CO2). The gas pushes out all the air in the room, starving the fire of the oxygen it needs to burn. Since there’s no liquid involved, priceless artifacts stay safe and dry.


Warning sign for gaseous fire suppression system /Cohesion /Creative Commons

The issue though is that archivists (like fires) run on oxygen. When you remove all the air from a room, they don’t tend to fare so well. To protect staff members, most gaseous fire suppression systems work on a delay. When a fire is detected and the system activates, it triggers a scenario that James Bond would appreciate.

Sensors detect a fire. An alarm goes off. Immediately, a countdown begins. You have 30seconds to evacuate the room, often through a self-sealing door. At the end of the countdown, high-pressure cylinders flood the room with gas, usually in a matter of seconds. If you don’t make it out in time, some facilities have portable, scuba-style breathing apparatuses to keep staff members oxygenated. Others just hope their archivists are relatively fast on their feet (and don’t use an iPod while working).

Poison and Pestilence

Most people think of archives as containing row upon row of photographs or documents. In reality, though, archives contain all kinds of artifacts. Gado Images’ internal archive here in San Francisco has everything from 8×10 photographs to glass plate negatives, matchbooks, and political pins. And if your archive is at a museum or government repository, you might be asked to store even crazier things.

In an industry paper, archivist Eileen Blankenbaker of the National Archives describes storing dangerous items including live ammunition, DDT sprayers, canisters containing the poison gas Zyklon B, and a blood-stained book from a soldier in the Sudan. The latter required exhaustive research on which blood-borne pathogens could survive to infect the archive’s staff (not too many, thankfully).


The deer mouse; cute but deadly. /Gado /CDC

One of the top health threats in an archive, though, comes from an unexpected source: mice. Aside from building nests with the chewed-up remains of priceless documents or photos, mice can carry hantavirus, which they leave behind in their droppings. Breathing in hantavirus (such as by opening a records box where mice have been hanging out) can result in Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome. The disease has no cure, and kills 36% of the people it infects.

And you thought mice were cute.


Yes, really. As reported in the Baltimore Sun, before a major modernization effort “snakes crawled around the building” at the Baltimore City archives. I’ve been there since, and can verify that the snakes are gone. Samuel L. Jackson may or may not have been involved.


The Baltimore City archives ca 2012. Now blessedly snake-free. Credit: Gado

Okay, granted–being an archivist is not actually as dangerous as being a firefighter or police officer. But archivists really do think in these terms. A director at the Library of Congress once confided to me that they have an elaborate (and top-secret) plan for safeguarding our nation’s treasures in the event of a major terrorist attack. This included a short list of documents he was personally willing to die to defend. And the heroic actions of individuals like Palmyra museum director Khaled Asaad–who was executed by ISIS when he refused to reveal the location ofpriceless artifacts–shows that the profession is willing to put its money where its mouth is.

So the next time you see an archivist, remember the lengths they may go to in order to protect their collections. And the next time you see a roll of film labeled “Nitrate”, run.

Thomas Smith is Co-Founder and CEO of Gado Images, a software and media company which uses innovative technologies to digitize and share the world’s visual history. The company works with archival collections to find unique, niche content and make it available to creatives worldwide.