Preservation Programs at St. Louis


PEP (Persons of Exceptional Prominence) Spot Light:  Lieutenant (JG) Harriet Pickens (1909-1969) & Ensign Frances Wills (1916-1998)

In honor of African American Women’s History Month, we are highlighting the first two African American women who were commissioned as officers in the US Navy.  Lieutenant Pickens and Ensign Wills were commissioned in the United States Navy on December 21, 1944.

Lieutenant Harriet Pickens, a public health administrator with a master’s degree in Political Science from Columbia University, was the daughter of William Pickens, one of the founders of the NAACP.  Prior to her military service, Harriet was the Executive Secretary of the Harlem Tuberculosis and Health Committee of the New York Tuberculosis and Health Association.  In addition to this position, she was a supervisor of recreation programs in the New Deal’s WPA (Works Project Administration). 

Ensign Frances Wills was a native of Philadelphia and graduate of Hunter College.  While Frances pursued her MA in Social Work at the University of Pittsburgh, she worked with famed African American poet, Langston Hughes.  She worked in an adoption agency, placing children in adoptive homes.   Her experiences as a pioneering naval officer led Frances to eventually write the book Navy Blue and Other Colors under her married name, Frances Wills Thorpe.

Obviously, these were two accomplished and well educated women, highly qualified to serve their country as military officers in time of war.  It was only their race that stood in their way and the remarkable pair would help to tear that barrier down.  They were sworn in as apprentice seamen in the US Navy in November 1944. 

After receiving their commissions a month later, both Harriet and Frances serviced at the Hunter Naval Training Station in Bronx, NY, the main training facility for enlisted WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) recruits.  Harriet Pickens led physical training sessions up until her death in 1969 at the age of 60.  Frances Wills taught naval history and administered classification tests.  She died in 1998.

Lieutenant Pickens’ and Ensign Wills’ military files are two of the records in our PEPs (Persons of Exceptional Prominence) collection at the National Archives at St. Louis. Due to the high volume of attention and research on their military career, Lieutenant Pickens and Ensign Wills’ record was placed in the PEP collection and digitally copied. The Preservation Programs at St. Louis treats and stabilizes PEP records by placing the documents in polyester film sleeves, removing fasteners and staples and undertaking any required repair actions that will extend the life of the documents. An entire record is then scanned and placed on DVDs so researchers can access exact replicas, thus preventing damage to the original documents.

We are proud to highlight the lives and achievements of these two courageous women who in the face of segregation and hatred overcame and changed the face of the United States Navy forever.

The Wonder Sponge: And We are Not Talking about SpongeBob SquarePants

A popular tool in our St. Louis Paper Lab for cleaning mold from records is our foamed natural rubber sponge erasers. Every work station has a pile of them! These soft erasers do wonders in cleaning mold from the paper’s surface. The erasers come in “brick” sizes and are easily trimmed down into smaller pieces which are held more easily in your hand. But an important word of caution! Although softer than hard erasers these can still be abrasive, and can cause damage if used on paper surfaces that are soft and friable due to more extensive damage.

PEP (Person of Exceptional Prominence) Spot Light:  John Coltrane (September 23, 1926 – July 17, 1967) 

               Legendary jazz performer and inductee to the Jazz Hall of Fame, John Coltrane is one of the most dominant figures that has influenced generations of jazz musicians.  Prior to his association with musical greats like Dizzy Gillespie, Johnny Hodges, and Earl Bostic, John Coltrane entered military service in 1945 and played in the Navy jazz band while stationed in Hawaii.

               When Coltrane entered military service, all personnel were required to have a chest x-ray as part of their induction requirements.  Within John Coltrane’s record, one such x-ray exists.  As the reformatting staff of the Preservation Programs at St. Louis scanned his military record for public use, his x-ray was scanned also.  There are several preservation reasons why x-rays are scanned.  First, the x-ray is part of Coltrane’s file, and thus an integral part of his historical record.  Secondly, providing a scanned image eliminates the need for a user to wear clean gloves so no oils from their hands would transfer onto the silver emulsion of the x-ray.  Thirdly, the x-ray base is cellulose acetate film (a.k.a Safety Film) which decomposes over time letting off gases that smell like vinegar, hence the commonly used term “vinegar syndrome”.  Vinegar Syndrome occurs when acetic acid is released from the acetate based film leading to the vinegar smell.  This deterioration makes the plastic film base brittle, buckle, shrink, and liquefy.  Keeping the film in a controlled environment helps reduce the continuation of the base’s degradation.  Lastly, the x-ray can be scratched easily if not handled appropriately.  

                 On occasion, the x-rays are digitally enhanced so the image is clearer, and in doing so, helps the researcher and improves public access.  These documents and x-rays are placed on DVDs so researchers can access exact replicas and prevent damage to the original document.


Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Selective Service System Draft Registration Card

The National Archives at St. Louis is home to millions of selective service system draft registration cards for men born prior to March 29, 1957.  In 2012, selective service registration cards were transferred to St. Louis from other NARA sites around the country.  The Reformatting Unit of the Preservation Programs at St. Louis recently stabilized, organized, and   re-produced digital copies of 17 boxes of these records which will available for public access.  During the project, Martin Luther King, Jr’s selective service card was located and scanned for public viewing.  Selective service registration cards can be viewed by the public and contains a great source of information for family history, genealogy, and scholarly research.


Ever wonder what the Preservation Programs at St. Louis does?…Watch this!!!


What is Preservation Programs doing with a Burned Record, a Customized Camera, and a WEBER Grill? 

               The burned record bays at Archives Drive facility in St. Louis are home to the ‘B-files’.   These are OMPF records that were recovered from the devastating 1973 fire, when the entire 6th floor of the Page Avenue facility burned destroying some 18 million individual serviceman’s records.  Approximately 6.5 million records were recovered.  Given the variety of conditions present on these documents, a number of preservation actions (e.g., mold remediation, repair, flattening or other stabilization) are required before releasing these records for reference. Unfortunately many, like this example, are too damaged to yield information and will deteriorate rapidly in the case of further handling.


For several years Preservation Programs in St. Louis has tested IR photographic methods to ‘see through’ charred and mold-stained paper and recover information with the idea that digitized versions will best accomplish access for this subset of highly damaged records.  Our testing led to the development of a customized camera system, by Digital Transitions, a photographic technology vendor that specializes in cultural heritage imaging. The examples above are successive shots directly from the camera prototype, with no manipulation (except cropping and redaction).  An internal filter wheel (at very bottom of illustration 4) can be rotated to select bandwidth sensitivity between visible light and two infrared ranges. In addition, the lens turret has been modified to include focus stops (illustrated in orange) to allow operators to rapidly and accurately adapt focus between taking successive shots of visible and IR.

While testing the prototype camera, Digital Transitions created simulated burned records by wrapping a dictionary in aluminum foil and grilling it in a barbeque grill. It turns out that creating char without completely consuming paper is not as easy as it might seem.  

Significant challenges and work remain in the areas of:  a) identifying the best candidates for digitization, b) developing special document handling methods during photography for those fused, blocked, moldy, highly burned, brittle or otherwise heavily damaged documents, and c) integrating these images of damaged records into the archival and reference workflows.


Cleaning Up…Clean Up…Everybody Do Your Share…

If you have mold that must be surface cleaned, you need a HEPA vacuum to help safely remove the unhealthy mold and dirt from the surface and prevent air-born particles. What is a HEPA vacuum exactly? A vacuum with a High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filter captures 99.97% of particles down to 0.3 microns diameter. In St. Louis NARA has a lot of documents contaminated with mold after the 1973 fire. HEPA is a necessity in our work, but suction level is also extremely important when working with fragile paper. In addition to variable speed Nilfisk vacuums, we also have Shuco vacuums in our Decontamination Lab. Designed by the medical industry, the Shuco has a lower suction and smaller hose than many HEPA vacuums are equipped. But even with the power assist of HEPA, work is most safely performed inside fumehoods when possible.

How to Stop a Possible Silverfish Infestation

         A possible silverfish infestation was discovered at 1 Archives Drive, St. Louis, MO, in the first shipment of newly-accessioned records, numbering 1200 cubic feet. These records were received from a military facility located in Florida, and were due to be shelved.

        The key to catching this potential infestation was identifying the problem, and quickly contacting the correct people. Five Archives students were preparing the records to be moved into the storage area when they noticed the insects - white, multi-legged bugs that wriggled and moved fast. The students contacted their project lead who contacted representatives of the Archival and Preservation staff to check out the situation. On initial inspection, no insects were observed, but the students were instructed to use sticky tape and baggies for catching a live specimen if they were seen again. 15 minutes later, a live specimen was delivered to Preservation, still wiggling while stuck to the tape. It was identified as a silverfish (specifically Lepisma saccharina), which are known to be fond of items containing starch, such as paper. They damage paper by scraping the surface with their mandibles, leaving irregular-shaped holes. Through on-line research, it was decided the best approach to mitigate a silverfish infestation was to blast freeze these records – silverfish and their eggs prefer warm, moist environments typical of the Florida climates. Recommendations were made to the Preservation Officer and the Director at St. Louis for options on freezing the remaining 2900 cubic feet of records not yet shipped. Given the number of boxes, a government Blanket Purchase Agreement (BPA) for emergency recovery services was enacted and a task order for blast freezing the boxes was created. This involved a series of emails and telephone calls from all NARA departments involved in order to invoke the contract and select Polygon Group (Illinois), a provider with the means necessary for the blast freezing process. By the end of the next day, the order was placed and the boxes were pulled from the shelves, re-palletized, and shrink-wrapped for shipping. The following morning, the records were loaded on a truck and left St. Louis, at approximately 11 a.m.

               The clear and continual communication between all parties was crucial in getting this potential infestation under control quickly. Instead of ignoring the insects, the archival students took the initiative to contact someone who knew the next step to take.  As a result, these records will be properly treated, and our building will remain pest free.

Preservation Programs at St. Louis Takes Off at Lambert Airport!

When walking to the baggage carousel to claim your luggage, do you ever look at displays or advertisements along the way?  Do you learn something new, or do you just walk on by? The St. Louis Preservation Programs and The National Archives at St. Louis hopes that their display at the Lambert-St. Louis International Airport will cause a traveler to STOP, and discover something new!

Two 29 foot-long display windows across from the baggage claim at Terminal One (the main terminal) will exhibit images and information about NARA’s preservation and archival programs in St. Louis.  A brief history of the 1973 fire at the National Personnel Record Center, photos of staff at work and a diagram of the steps to recovering a burned record inform viewers about the work undertaken at the St. Louis Preservation labs. In addition, images of prominent military and civilian employees from the past, along with a listing of archival holdings, entices viewers to learn about NARA records available to the general public. 

The display will be up from October 1 through December 30. If you’re traveling to or through Saint Louis soon—take a second to peruse the windows and find out about another amazing Saint Louis treasure!


Humidification Dome … Different than the Thunderdome!

The Paper Lab in St. Louis regularly uses several methods of humidification to flatten damaged or folded records, but the humidification dome is currently the most effective for the Lab.  The large chamber allows for high capacity humidification whether we are working with records damaged in the 1973 fire or documents that were stored rolled or folded. Tubing connects an ultrasonic humidifier which pumps moisture into the sealed dome.  Documents lay on blotter paper inside the dome to help absorb moisture and protect the documents.  Humidification times vary depending on the type of paper being humidified, but we are able to humidify regularly hundreds of sheets over the course of a day. Student intern Emily Thompson is seen here laying out and monitoring the humidification or records.

Personal Story Saved from the USS Arizona: 72 Years Later

A big challenge in preserving paper is dealing with the consequences of how records were maintained during the time they were actively used. Navy personnel records are difficult ones. Folded in thirds to fit into “jackets” or “bricks,” as the expandable brown folders are called, pages get torn, creased, and scrunched, requiring treatment. In the case of career Seaman 1st class Walter Lewis Hampton, the record is one hefty assemblage of papers spilling out of the small folder. Enlisted in 1925, Hampton served on the USS Henderson, the Arkansas, and the Wyoming, among others, before reporting for his final duty in December 1940 when he joined the USS Arizona.

Hampton’s sizable record contains a very special segment of documents - the Service Record kept on board the Arizona itself. This portion of his record was maintained to keep at close hand information on his enlistment, service, training, and physical description while at sea. It was among the records salvaged by the Navy after the loss of the USS Arizona on Dec. 7th, 1941. As Archives staff identifies records damaged aboard the Arizona, they are brought to the Paper Lab.

Hampton was among the missing after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He left four children and a wife who had initiated divorce proceedings on the grounds of years of abandonment. Although bearing the scars of the attack, his service record still details his personal description. Brown hair, blue eyes, a ruddy face, and tattoos—a kewpie doll, sailor boy, Red Cross nurse, pig, and rooster.  This personal information is all perfectly maintained despite the bloom of heat from the center of the booklet, or accretions of dirt along the edges of the pages that still remain from long ago blasts. For these special documents, not only the information they contain but the remnant damage of battle itself preserve an important piece of history.


The Wide, Wonderful World of Mold


Mold is commonly found in archival collections that have been housed in damp, humid places. It’s a problem regularly encountered, but not all suspected mold actually is mold. Dirt, stains, and rust sometimes raise alarms, even when mold is not present.

So how can you tell it’s mold, especially when mold can be any possible color? Well, mold is an organism, so look for flowering growth and the tell-tale signs of a food source, such as water damaged areas of a document. The surface of mold growth is soft and fuzzy. Active mold will be wet, while dormant mold will be dry.

Mold staining will occur in mature colonies as the organism expels waste. The color of the staining can vary and depends on different factors such as nutrient source.

But remember, if it is mold, assume it’s toxic and use gloves and respirators, and be sure to clean surfaces moldy documents were in contact with cleaners such as Envirocide.


Preservation of Frank Capra’s movie, “The Negro Soldier”.  A look at the preservation process from beginning to end.

In 1956, a National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) building was constructed in St Louis to hold military personnel records. The upper floor of this building caught fire on July 12th 1973. After a …