Prologue Magazine

NARA Conservators Meet the Challenge Every Day

Allen Johnson

Conservator Allen Johnson ultrasonically encapsulates a patent drawing in polyester film.

Mark Ormsby

Physicist Mark Ormsby injects a microsample of an unknown adhesive into a gas chromatograph to identify the components.

Anne Witty

Senior conservator Anne Witty surface cleans a volume of naturalization petitions.

Brenda Bernier

Senior photograph conservator Brenda Bernier gently surface cleans the edge of the mount of a William Henry Jackson Western Survey albumen print.

Fall 2003, Vol. 35, No. 3

By Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler


The Charters of Freedom, the most famous documents in American history, aren't the only historical records that receive conservation treatment in NARA's state-of-the-art Document Conservation Laboratory in College Park, Maryland.

Every day, every week, the laboratory, with careful attention to detail, repairs torn documents, flattens photographs, rebinds books, and performs a wide variety of conservation measures on the millions of accessioned records of all kinds in NARA's custody.

On any given day, a fascinating variety of records may be in one of the conservation treatment labs: the patent for a Gorham silver spoon, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (which ended the Mexican War), or the logbook of the USS Constitution.

While archivists are experts in the content of and relationships among records, conservators focus on records as physical objects and the materials used to record information—paper, ink, graphite, silver-gelatin emulsions—and how these materials have interacted over time and through use. Physical formats are significant because they convey information about how and when records were created and how they were used and stored, such as whether paper or parchment documents were folded, rolled, or bound to form a book.

Records may be treated to permit safe handling by researchers and staff or to permit microfilming or photography. In addition, all documents proposed for exhibition receive a condition assessment and any treatment required to permit their safe display. In addition, records that have been heavily used by researchers—or whose use is anticipated because of an upcoming anniversary—may require stabilization. Items of high value—such as international treaties or the early public laws of the United States—also often require conservation attention to permit photography or exhibition.

The Document Conservation Laboratory comprises several treatment labs as well as the research and testing lab. A staff of eighteen conservators and conservator technicians carry out treatments on paper, books, and photographs and advise on the storage and housing needs of these materials. Treatment laboratories focus on a wide array of archival records in original format, some dating back to the mid-1700s. These include manuscript and printed paper and parchment documents, photographs, architectural drawings, blueprints, posters and other graphic materials, ledgers, account and log books, journals, and diaries.

The research and testing laboratory consists of three chemists and one physicist who are engaged in a variety of activities that support NARA's preservation mission. Ongoing work involves helping to ensure that temperature, relative humidity, and air quality in stack areas support the long-term preservation of archival records. Tests are carried out to evaluate folders and boxes that are used to house records, and materials (such as adhesives) are identified to aid conservation treatment. Chemists also test a wide variety of materials proposed for use in display cases and exhibit areas—such as paints, fabrics, sealants, and carpets—to ensure that only materials that will not harm records are used.

The first step in conservation treatment is to carefully examine the records and to note materials and existing condition before deciding on a treatment. Depending on the particular records, treatment might include surface cleaning (to remove disfiguring soil or dirt that obscures text or image); mending tears with long-fibered Japanese tissue and wheat starch paste; adhering lifting emulsion on a significant photographic print; or re-sewing a heavily used regimental volume.

A large number of ships' plans, rolled up for years before coming to the National Archives, recently received treatment in the laboratory. The plans were placed in a humidity chamber on raised supports to keep them from coming into direct contact with wet blotters on the bottom of a treatment sink. In this way, the paper fibers could relax, permitting the plans to be opened without damage, thus allowing future safe access to the documents by archivists and researchers.

Conservation work at NARA is carried out primarily in several laboratories comprising 41,200 square feet at the National Archives at College Park. NARA's original conservation laboratory in the National Archives Building in Washington is undergoing renovation along with the rest of the building. The work in all of these laboratories assures the long-term availability of records that document our nation's past for future generations of citizens, students, and scholars.

Related Articles:

A New Era Begins for the Charters of Freedom
The Stone Engraving: Icon of the Declaration

Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler, who is chief of the Document Conservation Laboratory, joined the staff of the National Archives and Records Administration in 1985. She worked previously for the Society of American Archivists and the University of Illinois at Chicago and studied bookbinding for many years in Chicago. She has written extensively on archives preservation topics.


Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.