RIT is confronting the global challenges of sustainability through interdisciplinary programs that integrate engineering and science with economics and public policy.
by: Paul Stella January 2009
For precious artifacts and cherished documents, time is the enemy. As the years pass, deterioration becomes an inevitable consequence, and the toll is often quite severe. Through the work of the Image Permanence Institute (IPI) at RIT, museums, libraries, and archives around the world are finding the means to slow the progression of decay.
James Reilly has served as IPI director since the institute's formation as a department of RIT's School of Photographic Arts and Sciences in 1985. Beginning with research on the preservation of 19th century photographs, IPI's mission initially focused on serving the imaging industry as its primary client, providing information on sustaining photographic materials through advancements in technology.
"It's only natural that with RIT's history and the presence of so much photographic technology in Rochester, if there's anyplace in the world that you could have an institute whose focus is on image preservation, it's logical to think that it would be here in Rochester," Reilly says.
Over the years, IPI broadened its focus to serve a wide range of institutions. Archivists at national and international libraries and museums were acknowledging an ongoing struggle in managing storage conditions, a fundamental variable that most impacts the long-term viability of all kinds of collectibles. In many cases, archives were proving ill-equipped to withstand the ages.
"The stewardship of those collections depends in large part on the environmental conditions they're kept in," explains Reilly. "They could do their collections a lot of good with the proper conditions; they could do them a lot of harm with the wrong conditions. The area we work in is the creation of technology in the form of software, hardware, and websites that assist in determining what the conditions are and analyzing what they mean. In other words, we are helping clients identify adjustments that can be made either to improve the preservation quality of the environment or to deliver a good environment through more sustainable solutions that use less energy in the process."
Environmental monitoring and assessment are the primary focus of IPI research. Its staff of nearly 20 professionals—including chemists and imaging experts—focuses on increasing awareness to the impact of internal climate changes, as well as intelligent management of conditions to help institutions identify and achieve optimal storage solutions.
Temperature and humidity are the fundamental drivers of decay, but finding a balance to adequately address both of these can result in some level of compromise. To help institutions strike that balance, IPI provides its clients with Preservation Environment Monitors. Now in its second generation, this device retrieves and transfers data that is interpreted through an online software package.
Reilly indicates the key advantage to IPI's system is the opportunity to generate algorithms that can quantify outcomes. Archive managers can then react to statistics that showcase the potential risks and benefits resulting from specific environmental conditions.
"Suddenly, you have a set of six or seven numbers to manage that are similar to what happens in medicine, when the doctor gets a report back on your blood work that lays out aspects such as blood sugar and cholesterol. It gives them numbers that indicate where things really stand in a quantitative way, providing a better way of zeroing in on problems that the doctor would need to manage. Our approach, what we call preservation metrics, provides us with numbers that are linked to specific types of decay that lets the doctor, in this case the collection manager or conservator, see what's good or bad and to what extent, and manage incremental improvements." (See the Metrics Make the Difference sidebar.)
Support from federal and private foundations is instrumental in the development and distribution of IPI preservation technology. The National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation are the primary sources for funding and outreach. The institute also benefits from longterm contracts with important institutions like the Library of Congress, which has been affiliated with IPI for more than 20 years, and the National Archives.
Nancy Lev-Alexander, head of preventive conservation for the Library of Congress, credits IPI for helping her team better organize all aspects of climate control, including a more thorough understanding of the institution's air handling system and overall building maintenance. That knowledge provides added synergy to the intelligence being supplied by the preservation technology.
"We need some way to prioritize the amount of information we're getting," explains Lev-Alexander. "In order to make wise decisions on where to make our requests, where to focus our efforts, we need to be able to see what collections are in greatest jeopardy. So the tool that IPI created allows us to take a relative number and apply what we know about collections and make some informed choices. For institutions that have large collections, if you can get your arms around that, it keeps you from spinning your wheels."
The proliferation of digital technology is providing IPI with some additional focus areas relating to preservation. With support from the Mellon Foundation and IMLS, the institute has introduced the Digital Print Preservation Portal, also known as DP3. The website is intended as a resource to explore aspects of digital printing and publishing. Since technologies like inkjet, dye fusion thermal transfer, and digital electrophotography are relatively new, many archivists remain uncertain as to the potential longevity of newer submissions to their collections.
"You can buy an inkjet printer, and you can make a beautiful photographic quality prints using pigment inks on an inkjet paper, and permanence-wise it's very good," says Reilly. "It won't fade in the dark. It won't fade in light. It may be sensitive in ozone, although that quality is getting better. But it may be sensitive to things that a photograph wasn't. For example, surface abrasion may be a problem or the image might crack because the layers are different than what we're expecting."
DP3 provides clients with the means to compare aspects of newer technologies in relation to major deterioration issues. From the resulting matrix, they can synthesize the information into an overview that offers practical advice.
As traditional photography processes gives way to digital, IPI is teaming up with the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film in Rochester to launch the Center for the Legacy of Photography. The center, made possible by a $2 million grant from the Mellon Foundation, will focus on collecting and sharing knowledge about photographic materials from the previous two centuries.
The goals of the Center for the Legacy of Photography are to articulate the importance of understanding silver halide photography, ensure the study of its uniqueness as a fine art and visual communication medium, and document its technology and materials.
The center's work began this fall at the conclusion of the 10-year Advanced Residency Program in Photograph Conservation, which is building awareness among conservators as to the urgent need for advanced education and training opportunities in photograph conservation. One of the intended outcomes is to create a clear distinction between digital imaging and silver halide photography.
Grant Romer, director of the Eastman House's Advanced Residency Program, says this current partnership with IPI relates directly to rapid changes in photographic technology. He says the line between photography's past and what it has become needs to be drawn.
"The art of photography and the enormous archival record created by means of traditional photography represent a legacy that must be understood and preserved," states Romer. "As silver halide photography passes into history, with it will pass its industrial technology, its aesthetic and commercial context, and nearly all firsthand knowledge of its chemistry, materials, and processes. We must understand and define the ways in which the material nature of silver-based photographs differs from that of digital images and to make clear that the preservation and interpretation of the two pose distinctly different challenges, originating in different material and cultural contexts."
A dedicated Center for the Legacy of Photography website will promote the knowledge and activities of the Center and offer scholarly resources, access to original research, downloadable educational materials, and announcements of the Center's events and activities.
As time marches on, IPI will retain its focus on environmental initiatives as the building blocks for its preservation activities. But Reilly also sees the institute becoming more connected through educational ventures, serving as a hybrid between the tactical and applied aspects of its craft—a strategy that plays well into RIT's combined right-brain, leftbrain proficiencies.
"We really live in this middle ground between technology and art and culture, and when it comes to the survival of the physical objects of art and culture, that's where you need the middle ground."