Interview with Doug Nishimura

Doug was the first employee of the Image Permanence Institute, hired in 1986 to conduct research, program computers and write reports and journal articles. Doug came to IPI with a degree in chemistry from McMaster University in Canada and four years experience in stability research at the Public Archives of Canada. Today, Doug is well known throughout the field of preservation for his encyclopedic knowledge of image preservation and his willingness to provide thoughtful and extensive responses to all email and phone inquiries. At IPI, Doug is revered for his ice-cream making skills and the ability to answer the most esoteric questions from a wide range of subject areas. As all former ARP Fellows know, Doug is an extremely generous man—freely giving his knowledge, his time, and bags of candy to his colleagues.

Doug NishimuraName:
Doug Nishimura

Where were you born?
I was born in a little town called Deep River in Canada.

How long have you been at your current position and what were your previous titles and significant prior work?
As of June 23 this year, it has been 8,815 days since I was hired here. My only other significant title was research supervisor. Significant prior work would have to be the 24 months that I spent working for Dr. Klaus B. Hendriks at the Picture Conservation Division of the (then) Public Archives of Canada both as a research scientist under contract and as a summer student.

What was your professional training?
Most of the scientists in this field do their degree(s) in the physical sciences or engineering and end up dealing with cultural materials later. I was one of the odd ones who started with an interest in photographic chemistry and simply refined my focus over time. The magic of the darkroom caught my attention when I was four or five years old. I first stated my interest in becoming a chemist in my grade two autobiography and I finally welded the two ideas together in grade eight when I decided that I was going to be a research chemist dealing with photographic chemistry.

What was your very first job?
Depending on how you want to define it, my first job may have been cutting the grass, weeding, and watering my neighbor's yard, a newspaper route, or working in a drug store (the only local source of photographic chemicals.)

What would your dream job be?
Studying the behavior of photographic materials, thinking about it, writing relatively popular press articles about it, and teaching it to an interested audience; pretty much exactly what I do now. If this isn't an allowable option for this question, then I'd love to join Jamie and Adam on the Discovery Channel's Mythbusters.

How did you start working for IPI?
To answer this question I need to pick up from the professional training question. In high school I added color to black-and-white processing and I did silver-dye bleach plus all of the manual still image chromogenic processes except for Kodachrome and eventually taught an adult education night class for the local board of education. The summer after my sophomore year I worked on a government program called COSEP (Career Oriented Summer Employment Program) working at a Federal government chemistry lab. One morning, one of my supervisors came in and he was clearly not very happy so I asked what the problem was. He said that he was printing Cibachrome prints the night before and kept getting magenta fingerprints on them. I told him that his fingers were wet and if he wore plastic gloves, the fingerprints wouldn't happen. He came in the next morning and asked how I knew that, so I told him that I had printed and taught Cibachrome printing in high school. He said that he knew who I had to work for next year and he called Dr. Klaus B. Hendriks over at the Picture Conservation Division at the Public Archives of Canada.

The next summer, I interviewed there and worked on gelatin research. The following summer I was hired on contract to supervise the summer student research project and I started working there on contract. A government hiring freeze prevented them from hiring me as a real employee so eventually Dr. Hendriks took me aside and told me that he was on the board of advisors for a new lab starting up in Rochester and that since they could only hire me on contract, I might want to go there on the ground floor and grow with the lab. So I spent a weekend with the Reilly's and started working here May 5, 1986. Hendriks did call a few years later to ask how things were going and to ask if I wanted to come back to Canada to work in his lab. Needless to say, I declined.

Why does the preservation of museum and library collections matter to you?
Libraries, museums, and archives are repositories of human knowledge and accomplishment. They tell us how we got to where we are and form the stepping stone to where we're going. I still remember the effect of spending several days at the Smithsonian when I was 15 (in addition to sore feet and tired legs.) These institutions also contain the highlights of human creativity.

What is your favorite work of art or your favorite artist?
I was always a little weak on the art side, although I've come to appreciate many more artists and various works of art as I got older. However, when I was in grade nine I won the science award and they were trying to find something to give me that combined the outdoors with photography and I received a book of Eliot Porter photographs mixed with quotes from Thoreau and it still holds a special place. In non-photographic art, I enjoy Calder sculptures.

What other hobbies or significant interests do you have?
I used to do a lot of canoeing and camping when I was younger. It was a long-standing annual family trip, but as it became more difficult to coordinate, I've done less and less. As I've been getting older, I've been less tolerant of the heat and I think that it was really a family thing to do.

Quantum mechanics, cosmology/relativity, and popular science are of great interest to me. I did several quantum courses in school, but they were mostly math classes and we were usually calculating something without any real idea about what the results told us about the nature of the very small. So much of this reading is to fill in what I consider to be holes in my quantum education. On the large scale, relativity probably has almost as strange of a message as quantum has so it's of great curiosity to me. Both interests have required me to pick-up additional mathematical tools and that hasn't necessarily been easy. On the plus side, I can learn at my own pace, but on the negative side, I don't have anyone to ask questions to when things don't make sense.

Popular science has been of great interest because it has been teaching me other ways of explaining physical phenomena and I hope to be able to use this new knowledge to explain why archival materials behave the way they do to a non-science audience that speaks across to them rather than down. While I've enjoyed writings of people like Martin Gardener, probably the more inspirational people have been Jay Ingram, Joe Schwartz, and Len Fischer. Ingram used to host the CBC Radio program Quirks and Quarks, Joe Schwartz is Directory of McGill University's Office for Science and Society and Len Fischer is a physicist at the University of Bristol. 

What book (or books) would you take with you to a desert island?
This is a bad question for me. Books are rather like my uncontrollable drug habit. One difference though is that I enjoy re-reading old books, like visiting old friends: Asimov, Heinlein, Ellery Queen, Hugh Pentacost. I was also a very big fan of a local Rochester author, Edward Hoch's short mysteries. His long-running characters included a nomadic western gun slinger, a retired country doctor, a gypsy king, a police homicide captain, and a British code expert who were faced with impossible crimes and "locked room" type mysteries that were always a challenge to try to figure out.  

What is your most treasured possession?
In the long-term, I have several; all gifts from now distant friends. One of the oldest things is little more than a rag now, but it started as a custom printed tee-shirt commemorating the group of guys that I hung out with in high school. Also from that period is a pen and ink drawing of a picturesque place in my home town right at the edge of the Ottawa River known as Centennial Rock done by a girl I knew in high school. More recent items include a number of photographs and some personal writings...

In the short-term, my most treasured possession is the object of immediate need. (Remember the cartoon with a starving Sylvester the cat trying to open a can of food while a mouse has run off with the can-opener?)

What is your greatest indulgence?
It's probably my wine cellar which went into dormancy when the economy went belly up. I sacrificed adding any new bottles to save money. I hope to start adding to the collection again when major house projects slow down.

What was the most surprising thing to you about IPI?
The most memorable experience at IPI still has to be the 1997 Scientific and Technical Achievement Academy Awards. I doubt that anything will ever top it unless the Nobel committee adds a category for preservation research.