New “Stars” by Which to Navigate

Our Conference Room now has LED track lighting to highlight.

Our Conference Room now has LED track lighting to highlight. Photo by Monica Orozco.

By Monica Orozco, SBMAL Director

In the classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, the protagonist observes that trying to navigate on the Mississippi River at night has its challenges. While as Huck (or Twain) notes, “stars and shadows ain’t good to see by,” they do have significant advantages over the fluorescent lights that until recently illuminated the Santa Bárbara Mission Archive-Library. Thanks to a very generous grant from the Wood Claeyssens Foundation, the Santa Bárbara Mission Archive-Library has replaced its old lighting system with a new system comprised of LEDs (Light Emitting Diodes) which are energy efficient, kinder to the environment, and meet current archival and museum standards, thus providing a safer environment for our vast and significant collections.

Light is one of the biggest dangers to historical collections (along with insects, temperature, humidity, and humans). If you have ever visited SBMAL, you may have noticed we don’t have windows and that’s by design. The sun emits ultraviolet rays which are especially harmful. But even without the worry of sunlight, UV rays continue to be a concern because these are also emitted by fluorescent bulbs.

It takes only a few weeks under fluorescent lighting for a work of art to be damaged. Ultraviolet rays cause the weakening and discoloration of paper fibers and it causes pigments and dyes to fade. Exposure to ultraviolet light can lead to “light burn” or uneven discoloration. As a result we try to refrain from exhibiting some our collection in order to limit its exposure to light. This is particularly true of our water color paintings and etchings (paper is especially vulnerable to damage). This light exposure is also of concern for the rare books and manuscripts in our collection.

The existing fluorescent lighting system, despite whatever precautions we took, such as installing UV filters in each light fixture or limiting use or exposure of items, will cause damage to items composed of paper, ink, and pigments of various types. With increased use and exposure, the inevitable damage accumulates.

Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) however, do not emit UV rays, thus eliminating one of our major dangers to our collections. But there are other benefits as well. For instance, with LEDs we can select a color spectrum which will reveal the colors in paintings that may appear “flat” under incandescent or fluorescent lighting. It is not unusual for new details or colors in art work to become suddenly “visible” to the viewer under LED lighting.

The new lighting system also helps us with two other factors we must control, humidity and temperature. LEDs do not generate the heat which incandescent and fluorescent lighting generate. The impact of the lighting system on our humidity and air temperature control system will be much less than the previous system. Estimates provided by institutions which have installed LED systems such as the Getty Institute and the Smithsonian American Art Museum estimate that there is a 25% reduction of impact on these environmental control systems, resulting in a reduction in the energy costs associated with the operation of the environmental systems.

LEDs also have less impact on the environment in general. Replacing our existing lighting system will reduce our energy use by 75% percent, lessening our impact on the environment. Disposal of used incandescent and fluorescent bulbs is also problematic. Fluorescent bulbs contain chemical compounds such as fluorine, neon, lead powder, and the toxic heavy metal, mercury. These elements pose a hazard if released into the air, the water systems, or the soil. We must pay for each bulb we turn in for proper disposal. Light emitting diodes (LEDs) do not contain these hazardous materials. Transitioning away from fluorescent lighting has helped us be more environmentally friendly through reduced energy use and through the elimination of bulbs that are considered hazardous waste.

But there is also a human factor. LEDs do not hum or flicker, a common characteristic of fluorescent lighting, and therefore LEDs provide a work environment that is much better for volunteers, staff, and researchers. LEDs are a dependable source of lighting with a longer life than incandescent and fluorescent bulbs with a standard life of 1,000 to 2,000 hours. The industry currently cites the standard of 25,000 hours of life for an LED light. This means less labor and costs in the long run allocated for replacing bulbs.

The past few years have seen some tremendous changes at SBMAL in how we store our collections and the environment we provide for them. These improvement projects are a result of our commitment to our mission to acquire, conserve, and make available historical resources that can help researchers tell the stories of Franciscan Mission history and the history of Native Peoples in early California and the Southwestern United States.

However, we are a not-for-profit (501(c)(3) historical and educational institution that relies on donations, grants, and membership to subsidize our operating expenses and costs associated with conserving the collections. So major improvement projects such as installing a new LED lighting system are made possible only through generous grants such as this one received from the Wood Claeyssens Foundation! We greatly appreciate the generosity and their vote of confidence in the work we do to care for this historically significant resource.

We are continuing work on some other projects that will improve our facilities and our collections. Stay tuned for other progress reports! And if you are interested in finding out how you can help SBMAL, please contact me at or at (805) 682-4713 ext. 152.

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