Ann Hartman

Where’s the best place to preserve and protect your family’s photo collection? For most of us, it’s inside a dust-free protective container within a climate-controlled self-storage unit.

But if you’re Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and your Corbis Collection includes 15 million priceless photographs, negatives and glass plates dating back to the Civil War, you tuck them safely away inside a specially repurposed limestone mine 220 feet below ground in Boyers, PA, about an hour’s drive northeast of Pittsburgh.

Though it will take years to digitize this remarkable visual history, archivists estimate that the unique environment of the Corbis Film Preservation Facility (FPF) will preserve the collection for 2,000 years, give or take a century.

It’s one of several underground facilities, including an old missile silo, owned and operated by Iron Mountain, a Boston-based company that specializes in records storage, data management, restoration and bulk shredding at more than 1,000 facilities, most of them above ground.

In addition to the iconic images of the Corbis and Bettmann collections, the Boyers mine also preserves a wealth of cultural artifacts, including master copies of Hollywood films and hit songs of the past 100 years.

Ann Hartman (pictured at top), who manages the Corbis FPF, spoke with The SpareFoot Blog about this most unusual sort of data mining.

Marilyn Monroe

This iconic 1954 photo of Marilyn Monroe is stored at the Corbis facility.

What’s it like to descend into the Corbis FPF for the first time?

It’s hard to imagine what it’s like to travel a half-mile into an underground tunnel that is 220 feet below the earth’s surface. My first impression was, “This is another world and people actually work here!” As you move through the roadway, you notice the rock walls that have been painted white over the jagged rock to improve illumination. Although no mining is done today here, the charge holes from the original blasting operations are still visible. As you proceed deeper into the mine, you notice that there is a “Roadway Café,” golf cart travelers and people walking about. This underground is a little city where over 2,500 people work each day.

What makes Corbis FPF ideal for photo preservation?

The Corbis FPF vault is maintained at a lower temperature and humidity. The temperature is currently maintained at 45 degrees Fahrenheit, and the humidity is at 35 percent. These storage conditions extend the life of the photographic images as well as the film sleeves, print file folders and other filing aids used to maintain the collection.

Have there been similar attempts to use stable natural or manmade environments on this scale to preserve images?

Yes, the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library in Boston, the Time Inc. Picture Collection in New York City, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, and The Art Institute of Chicago are a few examples.

Albert Einstein

This photo of Albert Einstein was taken on his 72nd birthday.

What sets Corbis FPF apart from most historic archives?

Corbis improved on the archiving efforts by locating the collection in a seismically sound region of the country. In addition, it’s staffed to locate images not yet digitized or captured on the Corbis website. The Iron Mountain location is world-class, with the latest communication tools available. Operating underground is as easy as doing business from a major city. Services are available within the facility to digitize images with quick turnaround.

What can Iron Mountain teach amateurs about preserving family photos?

The life of an image can be extended by environmental controls. The content of collections big and small should be kept cool and dry. The relative humidity for black-and-white prints and negatives is the most critical factor in determining the rate of image deterioration. Relative humidity should be kept as low as practical, and every effort should be made to prevent the relative humidity from rising above 65 percent.

For color films and prints, storage temperature generally is the most significant factor in determining the rate of image fading and staining. For each 10 degrees Fahrenheit reduction in temperature, the life of color material will be approximately doubled.

Rosa Parks on bus

Civil rights pioneer Rosa Park rides a bus in 1956.

Self-storage units are perhaps the polar opposite of the Corbis FPF. What are the risks of non-climate-controlled photo storage?

Storage of photographic film and print images in uncontrolled and fluctuating temperature and humidity conditions will result in image deterioration and loss. Film emulsions can fade, flake and peel. Prints can fade and stain. Plastic film base can liquefy or dry out. Cellulose acetate, the most common film base, releases acetic acid as it decays in what’s known as “vinegar syndrome.” It causes the plastic film base to shrink, distorting the negative image beyond use.

What are your personal favorites among the images in the Corbis Collection?

I love the historical images, especially from the Civil War era. There is an image of a young boy who was a Confederate soldier; he looks about 14 years old. Another image is the one of Abraham Lincoln visiting a Civil War headquarters. I also enjoy historical images depicting old ways of life, such as Corbis/Bettmann images of telephone switchboard operators or waiters and waitresses pictured from the late 1800s. The Corbis Collection is so rich and vast. It contains just about everything that you might be looking for.

Historic images courtesy of Bettmann/Corbis; photo of Ann Hartman courtesy of Iron Mountain

Jay MacDonald