How to preserve priceless documents at the National Archives

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How to preserve priceless documents at the National Archives
Tim Enas, the director of the textual records division, among the stacks at the National Archives’ main operations center in College Park, Md., April 21, 2023. The National Archives and Records Administration is devoted to preserving the priceless records of the United States, including the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, documents from the present day and classified papers once held by presidents of the United States. (Jared Soares/The New York Times)

by Charlie Savage

NEW YORK, NY.- The National Archives and Records Administration is devoted to preserving the priceless records of the United States, including handwritten parchment from President George Washington’s era to 20th-century typewritten documents and modern electronic files.

More than 1 million schoolchildren and adults each year come to the National Archives to view the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, while historians and other academics visit its reading rooms to pore over its broader holdings, including an estimated 13.5 billion pieces of paper, 40 million photographs and enough film to circle Earth more than three times.

A quiet agency, the National Archives drew unusual attention over its monthslong effort to retrieve public records that former President Donald Trump kept at his Florida estate and club, which led to criminal charges against him. By law, government records from his White House belong to the agency.

1. The National Archives holds some of the country’s most storied documents.

The National Archives has been responsible for preserving federal records since 1934. Its primary building in downtown Washington is part research library, part administrative office and part museum. Key founding documents — the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights — are displayed in its rotunda.

The agency takes extreme precaution to slow the degradation of these fragile records, made of parchment and featuring iron gall ink.

Before the rotunda opens to the public, Dong Eun Kim, a senior exhibition conservator, checks the light levels. Because light causes ink to fade, the rotunda is kept dim — about five candles’ worth of light, or 60 lumens.

More than 1 million people each year visit the rotunda, which also features murals by artist Barry Faulkner.

The founding documents are sealed in encasements filled with argon gas and made from glass, titanium and aluminum. They were last exposed to the air and cleaned in 2001, when the building underwent a major renovation.

Before NARA, agencies maintained their own older records. When the National Archives building opened in 1937, it was swiftly deluged with historical files from across the government. More stacks were built in what had been planned as a courtyard in the middle of the building.

Today, the National Archives employs about 2,500 people and operates 43 facilities, which include presidential libraries spanning the Herbert Hoover to George W. Bush administrations and vast repositories of records from federal agencies. (Digital libraries are in the works for White House materials from the Obama and Trump years.)

2: Federal agencies pack up their records, which are shipped to a National Archives facility.

When a department runs low on space, it boxes up older files and sends them to record centers operated by the National Archives. The department still legally controls the records stored there, but ownership later shifts to NARA.

Presidential records are different. When an administration comes to an end, White House files are immediately transferred to the custody of the National Archives.

Archivists place newly acquired records in acid-free Hollinger boxes, trying to replicate their arrangement when officials still used them, and create a rough index of their contents.

Among the most popular collections are pension records of Civil War veterans, which are particularly useful to genealogists and historians documenting the lives of ordinary soldiers.

At the National Archives’ main operations center in College Park, Maryland, mobile shelving compresses stacks and creates more storage.

William J. Bosanko, the chief operating officer of the National Archives, recently told Congress that it is storing 555,000 cubic feet of classified information — about 5 1/2 football fields with floor-to-ceiling shelving of national security materials.

While classified records are supposed to be stored apart, under every administration covered by the Presidential Records Act, the agency has found some classified material mixed into boxes of unclassified White House files, Bosanko said. As a precaution, the agency therefore initially treats everything from the White House as if it were top secret, he said.

The agency also conserves many other materials, including maps created by state highway departments and the Federal Bureau of Roads.

Most stacks are kept from 50 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit. More sensitive records, such as acetate film, are stored at lower temperatures.

The agency has 40 million historical aerial images of the United States.

The National Archives also preserves films, video recordings and over 300,000 sound recordings deemed to be of historical significance, like disks of the Nuremberg war crimes trials after World War II.

3. Conservators at a College Park lab clean and stabilize older records.

Understandings about how to best stabilize fragile older documents have evolved, and a common task is undoing steps by archivists a century ago. To reinforce records, previous generations would glue on a transparent layer of silk, but subsequent archivists realized that this was acidic and could harm the paper.

Each document can take about three weeks to de-silk. Conservators dab on deionized water and chemical reagents to test the stability of the ink, verifying that silking can be safely removed.

Archivists soak the document to dissolve the glue and then peel off the old silking.

The document is washed and painted with an adhesive gelatin to strengthen it. In the next step, the document is left to dry between sheets of spun polyester web for several weeks.

The final phase is to repair rips and holes in a document. Tiny and nearly invisible strips of “Kozo” paper — made from the soft fibers of mulberry trees — are applied to documents. The strips are painted with a thin layer of wheat starch paste and then placed with tweezers.

The archives lab also cleans and stabilizes 20th-century items, such as poster boards from federal boarding schools for Native American children, which include arrays of photographs and captions intended to show what life was like at the schools.

Conservators in the lab also custom-make materials to store records, such as mylar encasement sleeves for the poster boards.

4. The National Archives scans old documents so that they can be made available online.

Most records can be digitized using regular flatbed scanners. But others are glued together in the corners — a precursor to staples — so flattening them would crease pages.

The archives uses a special scanner for such 3D materials. Increasingly, records that are digital from the start are transferred online. But the National Archives still acquires some via physical media, which it will dispose of after copying the files.

Typically, only 3% to 5% of records are considered to have permanent value. For example, documents on hard drives will be kept, but operating system files will not.

From the 1970s until 2008, the National Archives preserved electronic records on magnetic tape. It now uses a cloud server repository, along with an online catalog for materials available to the public. The catalog holds more than 205 million pages of records.

Some of the National Archives’ holdings remain unavailable. The Presidential Records Act shields White House files from public access for five to 12 years after a president leaves office, and ordinary researchers may not peruse material that remains classified. The agency has the power to declassify materials after 25 years.

Once files are opened to the public, the National Archives operates 34 reading rooms. Researchers come to access its collection, asking archivists to retrieve from the stacks boxes of material that range from obscure documents to storied records in the country’s history.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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