How to Preserve Priceless Documents at the National Archives

The National Archives and Records Administration preserves the priceless records of the United States. This includes handwritten parchment from President George Washington’s era to 20th-century typewritten documents and modern electronic files.

More than 1 million schoolchildren and adults each year come to the National Archives to view the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Historians and other academics visit its reading rooms to pore over its broader holdings. These include an estimated 13.5 billion pieces of paper, 40 million photographs and enough film to circle Earth more than three times.

1. The National Archives holds some of the country’s most storied documents.

The National Archives has been responsible for preserving federal records since 1934. Its primary building in downtown Washington is part research library, part administrative office and part museum. The rotunda is the location of key founding documents — the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.  Today, the National Archives employs about 2,500 people and operates 43 facilities. These facilities include presidential libraries spanning the Herbert Hoover to George W. Bush administrations and vast repositories of records from federal agencies. (Digital libraries are in the works for White House materials from the Obama and Trump years.)

2: Federal agencies pack up their records and ship to a National Archives facility.

When a department runs low on space, it boxes up older files and sends them to record centers operated by the National Archives. The department still legally controls the records stored there, but ownership later shifts to NARA.

Presidential records are different. White House files are immediately transferred to the custody of the National Archives.  By law, government records from the White House belong to the agency.  They cannot be held by past presidents.

William J. Bosanko, the chief operating officer of the National Archives, recently told Congress that it is storing 555,000 cubic feet of classified information — about 5 1/2 football fields with floor-to-ceiling shelving of national security materials. While classified records are stored apart, Bosanko said under every administration covered by the Presidential Records Act, the agency found some classified material mixed into boxes of unclassified White House files. As a precaution, the agency therefore initially treats everything from the White House as if it were top secret, he said.

The agency also conserves many other materials, including maps created by state highway departments and the Federal Bureau of Roads.

3. Conservators at a College Park lab clean and stabilize older records.

Understanding how to best stabilize fragile older documents have evolved. A common task today is undoing steps by archivists a century ago. To reinforce records, previous generations would glue on a transparent layer of silk, but subsequent archivists realized that this was acidic and could harm the paper. Detailed processes developed to clean, stabilize and preserve all items at the archives develop.  Stacks temperatures run from 50 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Lower temperatures are needed for acetate film.

4. The National Archives scans old documents making them available online.

Most records are digitized using regular flatbed scanners.  The archives also uses a special scanner for any 3D materials. Records that are digital from the start are placed online. But the National Archives still acquires some via physical media, which it will dispose of after copying the files.  It now uses a cloud server repository, along with an online catalog for materials available to the public. The catalog holds more than 205 million pages of records.

Some of the National Archives’ holdings remain unavailable. The Presidential Records Act shields White House files from public access for five to 12 years after a president leaves office, and ordinary researchers may not peruse material that remains classified. The agency has the power to declassify materials after 25 years.  The National Archives operates 34 reading rooms. Researchers come to access its collection, asking archivists to retrieve from the stacks boxes of material that range from obscure documents to storied records in the country’s history.

For the complete text and detailed descriptions on how the National Archives maintains all documents Click

This article shared by society member Paul Albright.

Image: Tim Enas, the director of the textual records division, among the stacks at the National Archives’ main operations center in College Park, Md., April 21, 2023. (Jared Soares/The New York Times)