national archives preservation

Blast from the Past

Photographed here is Ryan Collins, Archives Technician at the National Archives at Philadelphia, performing preservation tasks on a collection of records from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

It is not uncommon for Archivists to come across gems from bygone eras while performing preservation tasks. Sometimes NARA staff come across items as prestigious as a signature from a US President or Founding Father! Other times we discover objects from the not-so-distant past, evoking our sense of nostalgia. This is particularly true with the various, now-obsolete, media formats used throughout the years. From VHS tapes and vinyl records to monochrome and nitrate film, archivists uncover numerous media formats that are no longer in production. While processing a collection of records from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Ryan, one of our Archives Technicians at the National Archives at Philadelphia, came across disc film. After a few minutes of bemusement, he brought the film to our senior archivist who explained its use during the 1980s.

Disc film was released by Kodak in 1982 after 10 years of production. The advent of this new film technology would replace existing negative strips with a compact, convenient disc of negatives. This particular film required a specific camera to use, as well as specialized equipment to develop. Disc film would not be the “next big thing” however, and production was stopped in 1988 as a result of the poor picture quality on the film.

The formats on which the past is documented are ever evolving. Coming across obsolete media formats present challenges to archivists across the field.

This post was written by Ryan Collins, Archives Technician at the National Archives at Philadelphia.


Oswald’s Radio

When Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested for the assassination of President Kennedy, the contents of his house were removed by law enforcement. This radio, known as FBI Exhibit A2, was one of the items seized. It was recently in the conservation lab for a new custom box that will permanently house it and associated items. The inner compartments are lined with Ethafoam for cushioning, and the radio and its case can be safely removed using the included tabs and supports.RG 272, FBI Exhibit A2


Ratified Indian Treaty #8, more commonly referred to at the Treaty of Fort Pitt was recently treated in the Conservation Laboratory.  Signed in what is present-day Pittsburgh in 1778, it is the first treaty negotiated between a Native American tribe and the United States after its independence. This fragile record had been laminated between sheets of thin tissue and cellulose acetate film, probably in the mid-20th century.  The red resin seals at the bottom right had been cut from the record before lamination and reattached afterwards. Prior to lamination a number of pieces of pressure-sensitive tape had been used to repair tears.  Conservation treatment included reducing the lamination through immersion in a series of acetone baths to dissolve the cellulose acetate and release the tissue layers.  The pressure sensitive tapes were removed after delamination.  Next, the record was immersed in a series of deionized water baths to reduce discoloration and acidity.   Remaining treatment steps included realigning the record which was in a number of pieces after delamination; lining the document with Japanese mulberry paper adhered with wheat starch paste, infilling losses with cotton and linen paper pulp, toning the infills with watercolors, and reattaching the resin seals.
[RG 11, Ratifed Indian Treaty #8]

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.

Tape is Evil …

Archivists and conservators both know all too well. Numerous methods of tape manufacture and composition lead to an infinite ways to degrade items, yet the worst is that classic, yellow, creeping, oozing, oily, incredibly sticky mess.

Full treatment can be lengthy and difficult. So what can NARA do when a record needs to be accessed right away,  but there are a number of pages firmly stuck together? Cellulose powder to the rescue! Once the pages are carefully separated and the tape carriers are removed, cellulose powder (AKA Ashless powder) can be used to remove the adhesive. The loose fibers that make up cellulose powder are soft and stick to the adhesive once in contact with it. With careful handling, the powder picks up the adhesive, allowing removal of the adhesive layer from the page. Although this treatment does not reverse the damage to the page from the degraded tape, the pages are free and usable!


Give Way to Tanks!

This poster from the WWII foreign poster holdings in the Still Pictures Branch at NARA came to the conservation lab recently for treatment. The poster was humidified and flattened, and the surface was lightly cleaned using vinyl eraser crumbs, which can pick up surface dirt yet are gentle on the paper and media. The cracked and flaking ink was consolidated. Tears were mended and the small loss at the top right corner was filled with acrylic-toned Japanese paper. 

[RG 44, Records of the Office of Government Reports, 44-PF-123]


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.

When Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, he came from standing in a reception receiving line. He is reported to have said that while his arm was tired and his signature shaky, he was convinced of the rightness of his proclamation. This detail of the signature on the Emancipation Proclamation shows the wavering ink line (top image). The ink lines of the signature have lost their intensity and are in poor condition. The mottled discoloration of the paper is also evident. Emancipation Proclamation, RG 11, ARC # 299998.

This signature by Abraham Lincoln appears on the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation issued in September 1862 (bottom image). Because the document has been handled and exhibited much less, it is in very good condition. The ink signature is dark and crisp in appearance. Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation RG 11.

Kitty Nicholson, retired Supervisory Conservator at the National Archives, shares with the world in the exclusive video on the National Archives YouTube Channel a mystery about our Declaration of Independence.  Watch the following video … and if you can help solve the mystery … you may become a legend!    Happy Independence Day!!! 


Learn about the Conservation and Re-encasement of the Declaration of Independence (and solve an Independence Day Mystery!)

via preservearchives

Kitty Nicholson, retired Supervisory Conservator at the National Archives, details the conservation of the Declaration of Independence and shares a small mystery in an exclusive video on the National Archives YouTube Channel

Watch the following video and see if you can help solve the mystery!

Happy Independence Day!


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.


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


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

PEP (Person of Exceptional Prominence) Spot Light:  Cpt. Mary T. Klinker (October 3, 1947 – April 4, 1975)

Mary Klinker served in the Air Force as a flight nurse, instructor, and flight examiner from 1969 to 1975.

In 1974, the Vietnam War was ending and in an act of pure humanity, President Gerald Ford announced a mission that would be known as “Operation Babylift.” This mission’s purpose was to evacuate more than 2000 orphaned children from Saigon. Capt. Mary T. Klinker was enlisted as a flight nurse responsible for caring for the children during their transport to the Philippines.

Unfortunately, on April 4, 1975, the inaugural Operation Babylift flight ended in tragedy crashing within minutes of takeoff killing 138 of the 314 on board.  The flight crew, caregivers, and infants died in the Operation Babylift plane crash including Capt. Mary T. Klinker.

Capt. Klinker was 27-years-old when she died and was the last nurse and only member of the US Air Force Nurse Corps to be killed in Vietnam. She was posthumously awarded the Airman’s Medal for Heroism and the Meritorious Service Medal.

Capt. Klinker’s military file is one 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 her military career, Cpt. Klinker’s 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.

As we continue to protect and preserve these important military records, it reminds us that Memorial Day is not just the “beginning of the summer holiday season”, but  a time to reflect on the lives of men and woman of our armed forces who willingly gave up their lives for our freedom and the freedom of others around the world.

In St. Louis, the demand for military personnel records is high. Preservation Technicians prepare thousands of record pages annually in preparation for reformatting. In addition, Preservation Technicians review about 50,000 records damaged in the 1973 fire. All records have some level of damage, and our staff cannot fully treat every record. As a result, we have a triage based approach that emphasizes holdings maintenance. One of the simple actions we take is relaxing creases on pages in our records.

Each time paper is creased, fibers break. Likely, you’ve seen this happen on pages in a book that have been “dog-eared” to mark a page. If folded back against the crease, more fibers are damaged, until finally there is an entire break along the crease creating a separated fragment. Since we don’t want to crease in the opposite direction, staff always keep a bone folder handy while reviewing and working with records. This handy tool, which, as its name implies, was actually developed to create strong creases in bookbinding and other crafts. However, the bone folder also works well to relax the paper fibers. Creases are gently opened on a flat surface. With the peak of the crease facing upwards, the bone folder is used to gently rub along the crease to flatten paper fibers, as seen in the pictures here. This is repeated as necessary when a document has multiple creases. This simple treatment allows documents to lie completely flat and secure in their folders and prevents fragmentation and tearing of the documents while in reference use.


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.

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.