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America's History in the Making

Reconstructing a Nation

In the Video

Edited Hands on History interview with Russell Kracke.


Russell Kracke is the Director of Preservation Products and Services at the American Theological Library Association. He oversees the microfilming of religious serials and monographs through the preservation program, and he also catalogs the historic documents.

Q: Hi, Russell. Could you tell us a little about the American Theological Library Association, or ATLA?

Kracke: ATLA was founded in 1946. We have about a thousand affiliate, institutional, and individual members. And we provide programs, products and services to theological libraries and librarians. We are not a library; we're an association of libraries.

Q: Could you talk about the difference between conservation and preservation?

Kracke: Well there are differences between what ATLA does and preservation microfilming. For instance, an archive or a library's conservation department simply puts items on microfilm. ATLA will reformat the item. Archives and libraries will often de-acidify items, or them onto acid-free paper to make sure that the item doesn't decay quicker or faster. Here, we reformat it onto a 35 mm microfilm.

Q: And how does this help expose these items to more people?

Kracke: Well the really nice thing about preservation microfilm is that it can be copied as many times as you want, and so material that is usually not available in one place can be viewed on microfilm at any library. Often libraries will do interlibrary loans. So, for instance, a teacher who is interested in looking at an African American serial can probably go to their library and request an interlibrary loan on this material and have it right at hand.

Q: So it sounds like it's really valuable for researchers to have these historical documents available.

Kracke: Oh absolutely. Paper will always decay, but camera masters are supposed to last about 500 years.

Q: Why do you think it's important to do preservation microfilm on these documents?

Kracke: It's important to do preservation microfilm particularly on the African American grant because the materials are very brittle. It's really distressing to see that often items will be stolen or lost, and the complete history of this item will be missing and only pieces can be brought together. And I think that's the reason why it's so important to be able to preserve these on microfilm.

Q: How do you actually acquire the materials that you will be microfilming?

Kracke: That's a good question. In order to acquire the material we use two basic union catalogs, which are databases. There's Online Computer Library Center's (OCLC) connection and we use the RLG Union Catalog (RLIN) as well. If we can't find an item there, we will search the Internet to see if we can find the publisher, or a repository or an archive that will house these. We've been known to go as far as India to get replacement copies.

For the African American grant we basically used African American newspapers and periodicals , which would require reference research, and we also searched very, very extensively on OCLC's connection, to see what was out there. We have really gone and made every effort to find and film all African American religious periodical literature that hasn't already been filmed.

Q: Can you give me a rough estimate of how many documents that is?

Kracke: Well, so far we've filmed over 832 volumes and over 172 titles. The really sad thing about the African American grant is that there are so many issues missing. It is possible that these missing volumes are sitting in someone's attic somewhere, but we don't know where they are. And it's really unfortunate that it seems that at the time, libraries did not find these materials of enough importance to save them in their libraries.

Q: And what kinds of materials are published in these periodicals?

Kracke: For this grant, we're focusing mainly on three types of periodicals. We have typical African American religious literature such as the Plantation Missionary. We have annual reports of African American churches such as the African-Methodist-Episcopal Church and then we also focus on the annual social service organization reports. Now, the social service organizations are interesting because they deal with a segment of the African American population that was segregated from the white population. Social, religious organizations set up societies to take care of African Americans who were mentally or physically disabled, who were blind, deaf or aging.

Q: Once you locate a resource using a database search, how do you physically acquire it?

Kracke: We will simply e-mail or telephone the appropriate library and say, "Would you be willing to loan your items?" Many libraries are grateful to loan their items to us so that we can preserve it on microfilm, because many of them recognize that the materials are going to deteriorate.

Q: And I would assume many libraries don't have the resources that enable them to do that themselves.

Kracke: Oh, that's absolutely right. Most libraries cannot afford to do preservation microfilming. Although micro-preservation microfilming is relatively cheap, we're dealing with theological libraries that usually don't have a lot of money. So the wonderful thing about the NEH grant is that it actually allows us to do this.

Q: Can you explain some of the challenges that you face in putting together a complete record of a volume?

Kracke: Trying to find missing issues can be very difficult. We've found with the African American grant that it's been particularly difficult to find missing issues. Many issues were lost or stolen or simply are in decay. And it's unfortunate when libraries aren't willing to lend those items, because they don't understand that in a hundred years they're not even going to be able to turn those pages; they're going to crumble into dust. And so that's why it's really important for us to try to find as many missing issues as possible.

Q: Do you think that with the ephemeral nature of periodicals in general, that they're treated as transient and not valued and saved?

Kracke: Right, and with the African American collection particularly, I think that they were considered fairly ephemeral and perhaps not very important. They were clearly not very important to many libraries at the time they were being published. But that has certainly changed over time. Now we're looking back and saying, "Why didn't we save these? Where are they? How can we find them?" Unfortunately, for many of these items it's just simply too late.

Q: So you search for the items, you acquire the items, what happens once they come in the door?

Kracke: When we receive an item, the first thing we have to do is collate it. We'll do a page-by-page collation to see if there are missing issues or missing pages. If there are damaged pages, we'll then try to locate other libraries that might have a copy and we'll ask for replacements. Those libraries will send us photocopies, or sometimes they'll send the actual issue.

Q: And then what's the next stage after that?

Kracke: After we have made an item as complete as possible, then we will catalog it. I really love cataloging. It's really very interesting. Often we're looking at an incomplete bibliographic record, and after we pull together all these different serials, we're able to put together the history of this serial and make a complete cataloging record. And this can become very, very difficult when you're dealing with many different title changes.

Q: And when you say you're putting together a history of a catalog, what do you mean by that?

Kracke: Well, periodicals are sort of like living relationships. They break off, they have children, they come together, they break off again. And the titles can change, the editor can change, the focus of the material can change. So when we're cataloging, we're recording all that history for the user so they can have better access to this item through the bibliographic record.

Q: So once the cataloging process is complete, what happens with that catalog?

Kracke: When we catalog an item, we use OCLC's connection, used by libraries all across the country and across the world. So that means that any person who might be looking for this title or material related to a particular subject will be able to find it in OCLC. So it's very convenient for libraries.

Q: And what is the next stage in the process?

Kracke: After we have found and cataloged the most complete copy available, then we send the material down to our microfilm room, where the microfilmer puts the item on a table, and using a camera with a foot switch, he will turn the page, take an exposure, turn the page, take another exposure and so on until he has photographed the entire item.

Q: Can you explain some of the precautions that you have to take to take when you're handling these historical documents?

Kracke: Well, the interesting thing about the material we received, particularly for the Africa-American grant, is that even though you would think it would be very brittle, sometimes the very early materials from pre-1850 are actually in pretty good condition. And when we're actually filming the materials, we can use our hands to turn the pages. Problems arise when an item is poorly bound or if there are staples. Then, when we put it on the table to bring the glass down, the pages will crack. And so sometimes we'll have to de-staple, cut the binding strings, or section a book. Even though that frightens a lot of libraries, in order to preserve the material in microfilm, it's actually better for the to disassemble it in order to archive the item.

Q: You disassemble the item so you can individually lay each page flat?

Kracke: That's exactly it. Even though you might guillotine all that's left of the paper, at least you have the full text in its original form without a frightening crack down the middle of the text.

Q: Do you think the paper itself is in better shape because paper techniques used in that period were of a higher quality?

Kracke: That's exactly right. Between about 1850 and 1985, the manufacturing process produced chemicals like bleach, alum and tannin that developed into acids. So that's why you will find that some of the earlier items from before 1850 are actually in much better condition than, for example, annual reports from the 1920s, which can easily crumble in your hand if you're not careful.

Q: Once you actually make an exposure of a volume, it goes to the developer? How does that process work?

Kracke: As soon as the image is captured in the camera, each generation goes through the processor, and then to the duplicator. From each generation you can make another generation.

There are three generations of microfilm: The camera master, the duplicating master, and the service copy. The camera master is the archival master that is actually in the camera when it is being filmed, and it's a very thick film that's supposedly going to last 500 years, it's a silver-halide-emulsion on a polyester base. The duplicating master is a negative master and it is used to make, to make positive copies. You can- you can usually make about 10 copies from a duplicating master.

We then send the camera master to Iron Mountain. We keep our camera masters in an underground vault. It's actually a converted limestone mine and the temperature there is 68 degrees with 35 percent humidity. And all the camera masters are stored in pH-neutral, acid-free boxes. The idea behind the camera master is that you don't have to touch it. With the duplicating master, you can make up to 10 copies and hopefully you'll never have to use the camera master again. The service copy is final product that the end user uses in his or her library.

Q: What are some of the biggest challenges that you face when going through this whole process of preservation microfilm?

Kracke: I think some of the challenges are that libraries don't want to loan their materials. They're sometimes afraid that we're going to destroy their materials and they don't realize that this is actually the best thing you can do for an item that's disintegrating before their eyes. I think another problem that we encounter is not being able to find items. That's very discouraging to us to be able to only find three or four annual reports of 50 that had been produced.

Q: How does it feel working here and having these historic documents coming through your office every day?

Kracke: Well, I get a great sense of elation working at ATLA and handling these materials. It's very fascinating especially with the African American grant to look back and see how society in general perceived African Americans. It really does give me a great sense of joy to be able to deal with these materials and to preserve them to make them available to others. I think we have a very competent and very capable staff, and I think we all are really thrilled to be able to preserve this material for scholars and for future generations.


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