About the National Archives

What's a Conservator?

Unlike archivists, who focus on the content of documents, conservators taught to think about the physical makeup of documents. To conservators, who often have a background in studio arts and sciences, the kinds of paper and ink used to create a document and the presence of unique features—such as seals or ribbons that were used as early fasteners of documents—are as interesting as the story the words tell.

Documents and artifacts that come to NARA’s conservation laboratory represent the many different ways that people have recorded information over time. They vary tremendously—from quill pen used on parchment to modern-day computer printouts.

There are many reasons why materials in the National Archives receive conservation treatment. For example, wide-angle (panoramic) photographs or large maps that were rolled-up for years cannot be opened safely until they are carefully unrolled and treated in the conservation lab. Sometimes a document must be protected before it can be handled regularly by researchers. For example, many papers from the World War II era are brittle and came to NARA needing preservation care.

All documents that are displayed at the National Archives Building are examined first by conservators. If necessary, they are then treated to ensure that they are safe to exhibit. Conservators work with a variety of tools and materials. Conservators try to use treatment materials that will not adversely affect the materials over time.

Treatment may include use of :

  • microscopes to check ink to see if it is damaged or flaking.
  • mending of pages using wheat starch paste and strong light-weight Japanese mending paper, which result in almost invisible mends that can be removed later if necessary.
  • rebinding using heavy presses that help new covers remain flat as glues dry.
  • Humidity to relax rolled-up paper fibers so that the document can be opened without cracking or tearing.

Specialized hand tools also help conservators in their work. Soft brushes are used for surface cleaning or dusting documents. Special tools made of animal (usually cattle) bone assist in creasing or smoothing paper and cloth. Conservators use a variety of special enclosures and holders, such as acid-free folders and boxes, and clear plastic, ph-balanced sleeves, to ensure that documents can be stored safely.