Photographic Evidence

UT Arlington joins prestigious national institutions in protecting history

UT Arlington joins prestigious institutions in protecting history

Texas Rangers
Texas Rangers in the early 1900s in in Falfurrias, Texas. Photo courtesy of UTA

While the Dallas Museum of Art works to digitize its entire collection, the University of Texas at Arlington is using technology to preserve history in another way. UTA recently broke ground on a cold storage vault to protect 5 million photographic negatives from aging.

Partially funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the $800,000 project will be one of the largest in America. The images date back 150 years and include historic collections from Arlington, Fort Worth and Breckenridge, Texas. Photos from the Special Collections at UT Arlington regularly appear in books, documentaries, films, magazines and scholarly research.

 The slightly-above-freezing temperatures can extend the life of photo negatives from 50 to around 450 years.

"The state-of-the-art construction and high level of environmental protection will help us to answer the diverse research demands of our students, faculty, staff and other library patrons today and for generations to come," dean of UT Arlington Libraries Rebecca Bichel said in a statement.

Built in the central library's basement, the 700-square-foot facility will hover around 35 degrees Fahrenheit. The slightly-above-freezing temperatures can extend the life of photo negatives from 50 to around 450 years. 

Head of special collections Brenda McClurkin said that the "problem of preservation" can't be fully addressed by scanning images onto computers.

"While libraries are actively digitizing their collections, digitization alone does not solve the problem of preservation," McClurkin said. "Digitizing the collection would take millions of dollars and many years. Even if we had the money, the negatives would continue to deteriorate faster than we can scan them."

Once completed in 2015, the vault at UTA will be in good company. Other institutions that have built cold storage facilities to preserve historic photos include Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, the Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley, the Smithsonian Institution, and Library of Congress.