How Nitrate Film Burns: The State of Research

While archivists know all too well that nitrate film stock can catch fire, “understanding of the relationship between nitrate decomposition and combustibility remains weak.” That’s the thesis that Heather Heckman develops in “Burn After Viewing, or, Fire in the Vaults: Nitrate Decomposition and Combustibility,” an article in the Fall/ Winter issue of The American Archivist (Vol. 73, pp. 483–506).

Heckman, a doctoral candidate in film studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, is preparing a dissertation about the short- and long-term implications of Hollywood’s conversion to Eastman Color in the 1950s.

In her article, she surveys what she calls “the contradictory descriptions of decomposition and combustibility of motion-picture film in current archival and safety literature,” and she evaluates their sources, and compares them to descriptions by image-stability researchers and chemists.” Throughout, she says, she argues “that the dialogue among the archival, safety, and scientific communities is inadequate and that no community has satisfactorily established the evolution of flammability as nitrate decomposes.

Link to the article, or download and unzip: heckman article.pdf

Reprinted with permission from the Society of American Archivists. Visit

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