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True Stories

Preserving America's Paper Trail
Archivist shares her experience working at the National Archives
By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 5, 2006; Page B03

On December 5th, 2006, Michael E. Ruane, staff writer, Washington Post wrote about Jane Fitzgerald's experience working at NARA to preserve America's paper trail. A few jobs are simply outstanding. Others stand out because they're unusual, virtually invisible or incredibly tedious. Most of us go to work five days a week, but just what "work" means has countless definitions.

We're on a secret tier deep inside the granite-and-limestone, bronze-doored fortress of the National Archives on Pennsylvania avenue NW.

Archives building facade Jane Fitzgerald has buzzed security, identified herself and alerted it that she'll be opening two vaults. She's spun the combination lock on the first vault and is now working on the second. The hallway is spare and empty. She is one of only four people allowed in here unescorted. An avid history fan, I wonder aloud what's inside.

"Ahhh," she says. "You'll see."

She laughs and continues to work the combination.
When the door clunks open, she goes in and closes it behind her. There are alarms within that must be turned off.

"Okay," she says, emerging, "come on in."
We enter a large room with huge concrete beams and rows of metal shelves.

These are the Archives' new vaults, and Fitzgerald, 45, is their manager. She has a quick walk, rimless glasses and a steady gaze. Daily, in these confines, she sees marvelous things.

Elsewhere in the building, under the massive rotunda, the Archives' superstars – the handwritten Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights – are on public view.
But here, in climate-controlled concrete quiet, reside the seldom-seen jewels of United States history.
Fitzgerald dons white cotton gloves and pulls a gray cardboard box from a shelf. "This is the exchange copy pertaining to the Louisiana Purchase," she says. Inside, encased in gray velvet, is an ornate, dark blue book containing details of the 1803 sale. It is handwritten in French and signed "Bonaparte."

Fitzgerald is a Connecticut native, a lover of history, but didn't want to teach. This seems like more fun, hanging with "Bonaparte" and the like. She's been at the Archives for eighteen years and is never bored. "This is a primo job," she says.
She pulls out another box, numbered ninety five. Inside is the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves during the civil war. She points out President Lincoln's shaky schoolboy signature. The "A" and "B" in "Abraham" look squiggly. Fitzgerald says Lincoln's hand was weak that day from shaking hands with visitors.

On other shelves are President Ford's 1974 pardon of President Nixon after Watergate and a printed copy of the Declaration of Independence, one of only twenty five known to exist. That's her favorite.
The flawed U. S. articles of confederation, which were replaced by the constitution, are in a box on a rolled-up parchment that is eight feet long.

"It's eight feet long?" I ask.
"At least eight feet long," she says.
"Can you take it out?" I ask.
"I can't take it out," she says. Understood. The articles are widely known to have been inadequate. But who knew they were so weirdly cumbersome?

Jane Fitzgerald, of the National Archives, and not many others.

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