Nitrate Won’t Wait: A History of Film Preservation in the United States

Nitrate Won’t Wait provides the most complete history of film preservation available in a single volume. This book details the early days of film preservation, obstacles faced by the pioneers of the early film preservation movement, and how the movement has progressed over the years, as well as the 1992 status of film preservation in the United States. Nitrate Won’t Wait is probably one of the ten most important film history books ever written. It is essential reading for any self-respecting film historian or lover of film who hasn’t already read it.

Among the topics covered are the first preservation efforts by the Museum of Modern Art in the 1930’s. The role that the Library of Congress has played is also discussed, as well as the role that private collectors have had in the preservation of our film heritage. Mr. Slide also gives detailed information about why the early nitrocellulose film (pre-nitrate) was so vulnerable to being lost. Included is a harrowing description of how nitrate film will actually self-combust at 106 degrees Fahrenheit! He also reveals the horrifying reality that “although safety acetate film has been used since 1951, it is now known that the transfer of nitrate film to safety film no longer guarantees eternal preservation of our film heritage.” It was believed for years that triacetate film stock (safety film) had a lifetime of 400+ years. Basically, the only real advantage of triacetate film is that it doesn’t pose the fire hazard that nitrate film does. The search for perfect preservation is an ongoing effort.

In this extensive study, Mr. Slide addresses the video revolution, and the stubborn position held by the various U.S. archives against making their public domain holdings accessible on video. His conclusion that “The National Endowment for the arts should insist that grants for the preservation of public domain films be contingent upon archives’ working for the videotape release of such titles” expresses our sentiments at The Silents Majority exactly!

Nitrate Won’t Wait features an important appendices section, which includes addresses for all members of the International Federation of Film Archives, as well as lists for commercial U.S. archives, non-commercial U.S. archives, and commercial film and video libraries outside the United States. Also thoughtfully included is a subject guide to give us an idea of which films are carried in the various archives in the U.S. Finally, the book is also complemented with an extensive bibliography, index and illustrative photos.

Nitrate Won’t Wait is highly recommended, and is worth every penny of the $41.50 price, and then some.

Madison Morrison