The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 15, Number 5
Sep 1991

Preservation Activities at the National Archives, FY 1990

The annual report of the National Archives for the year ended September 30, 1990, is organized by activity rather than by office or department, which makes it easier for the reader to follow the plot. Chapter 10, which is on preservation, includes the sometimes overlapping reports of the Archival Research and Evaluation Staff, Office of the National Archives and Office of Presidential Libraries. It is reprinted below in full except for the following passages: two paragraphs on the Fifth Annual Preservation Conference, the one on exhibits which was reported earlier in this newsletter; a report of the Document Conservatism Laboratory's work on various artifacts; the account of the Research and Testing Laboratory's research on shrink-wrapping, which was covered in a previous section of the Annual Report; the Research and Testing Laboratory's ongoing testing of storage supplies, which is not news; and the report of the Presidential Libraries' photocopying of two million pages and rehousing of thousands of photographs, which were apparently done by sound but not unusual methods.

Archival Research and Evaluation Staff

The planning for preservation projects is part of the functions of this staff, under the direction of Alan Calmes, the Preservation Officer.

Revision of the 20-Year Preservation Plan

The 1985 National Archives 20-Year Preservation Plan, developed after a 3-year study with the assistance of statisticians from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST, formerly NBS), continues to be the basis of preservation actions and priorities in the National Archives. The resources identified in that study, $11 million annually aver a 20-year period, represented the estimated level of funding needed to eliminate the backlog of preservation work.

The plan calls for rehousing inappropriately packaged paper records; microfilming or photocopying inherently unstable papers, such as Thermofaxes (trademark) and mimeographs; microfilming or photocopying frequently used records; and protecting, by laboratory conservation treatments, especially fragile and valuable documents subject to frequent use. This approach also agrees with the 1986 findings of the National Academy of Sciences (Preservation of Historical Records), which concluded that undisturbed papers needed little attention beyond good housing and a benign storage environment, which are the goals of Archives II.

This year, the Preservation Officer was assigned the task of updating the 20-Year Preservation Plan. With the assistance of statisticians from the Department of Transportation, he conducted a study of the use of paper records in the National Archives. Tabulations of reference service slips and reproduction service orders revealed a pattern of limited use of the millions of paper records in the National Archives Building. Usage appears to be in small clusters, with the vast bulk of holdings not being touched. These clusters, however, are unpredictable, as research interests shift from time to time. Because most unused records may be preserved by maintaining a benign environment, a more precise estimate for additional preservation actions on records subject to use could reduce the funds needed for preservation. The purpose of the update, therefore, is to locate and identify the records subject to use, to evaluate the condition of those records, and to estimate preservation requirements for them.

"Holdings maintenance" goes a long way to slowing down deterioration of records. Because it is necessary to provide a benign microenvironment for all documents, it is unlikely that the holdings maintenance workload will be greatly affected by the usage rate. Usage, however, may indicate the best mix of holdings maintenance work to be scheduled over the long tem because, for instance, frequently used papers should be reboxed sooner than unused papers. The funds needed for holdings maintenance my gradually increase or decrease aver the tin-e of the plan depending upon the frequency of use and the condition of the records.

The microfilming, photocopying, and conserving workload estimates are rare likely to be affected by the study. Because frequently used records in poor condition need to be protected, the quantity of records that falls into the "frequently used" category will help determine preservation costs.

A pilot study of Military records reference requests in the National Archives Building, excluding service and pension files, was concluded in 1989. After review, the methodology was extended to civil records in the National Archives Building and to both civil and military records at the Washington National Records Center in Suitland, MD.

The low level of use of the holdings was demonstrated by the distribution of accessed shelves on location listings from the sampled 1987-88 reference service slips and reproduction service orders. This sampling indicates that the 1985 estimates for some preservation work may have been too high, but an evaluation of condition unit be carried out to confirm that there is no great urgency for such action. For example, the pilot study found that among the military records in the National Archives Building, excluding service and pension files, only 5.7 percent of shelves in the Military Branch were accessed during the 2year period FY 1987-88. About 24 percent of the used shelves were accessed only one time during the 2-year period; the rest experienced multiple references, but only .8 percent were referenced six or more times. The latter case might be interpreted as frequent usage.

Microenvironmental Research: The Relationship of Packaging and Preservation

On April 5-6, the National Archives Advisory Committee on Preservation met in Washington, DC, and discussed microenvironmental research and the efficacy of archives storage boxes and other methods of packaging documents for long-term storage.

Regular members present were: Norbert S. Baer (Chairman), Alan R. Calms (Executive Secretary), Paul Banks, Peter Waters, and William K. Wilson. Ad hoc members present were: Marion F. Mecklenburg (Smithsonian Conservation Analytical Laboratory), Chandru Shahani (Library of Congress), J.N. Peters (DuPont), Susan Lee Bechtold (National Archives), Elio Passaglia (NIST, retired), Charles M. Guttman and Kenneth Jewett (NIST), A. Miller and Russell Sugimura (Jet Propulsion laboratory), Jams Druzik (Getty Conservation Institute), James Reilly (Image Permanence Institute), Robert McComb (Library of Congress), Robert M. Ehrenreich (National Academy of Sciences), and T.O. Taylor (Taylor Made Go.).

In its 1986 report, the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Preservation of Historical Records had called for a better understanding of what happens at the surface of a document in storage. As a result, the National Archives commissioned the then National Bureau of Standards (NIST) to design research experiments to determine what happens to documents inside storage containers. Elio Passaglia of NIST outlined several research projects. At the same time, there was concern at the National Archives over the possible side effects of shrink-wrapping bound volumes. The basic question raised was whether or not there was further degradation as a consequence of wrapping or encapsulating volumes or documents into tightly fitting, nearly impermeable packages. The National Archives took the Passaglia research design and commissioned NIST to determine (1) the diffusion rate of gases through paperboard archives boxes and (2) the products of degradation of paper. These studies are underway and will be completed in 1992.

Charters Monitoring System

The Charters Monitoring System (CMS) is a unique system of integrated electronics that monitors the physical condition of important documents, including the Charters of Freedom (Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights). NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at the California Institute of Technology designed the CMS, and Perkin-Elmer, an optical instruments manufacturer, integrated the various components of the system and wrote the software to control it.

The CMS is capable of recording in very fine detail 1-inch-square areas of documents and later retaking the pictures in exactly the same places under the same conditions of lighting and charge-coupled device (CCD) sensitivity. The CCD measures the reflectivity of what it sees. Repeatability of the experiment allows the National Archives to track and plot changes that may be occurring on the surface of the documents over time . For the Charters of Freedom, for example, the National Archives will be able to measure possible losses due to ink-flaking and fading.

During FY 1989 detailed comparisons were made of Charter of Freedom images taken a year apart. JPL conducted a validation check- of the CMS analysis by processing the data on JPL's powerful image processor, the one used to study pictures of the moons of Uranus and other outer planetary bodies. Ratios of year-apart images taken of the saw areas of documents showed shifts in tiny dust particles trapped between the layers of glass, proving that the ac is so good at observing changes that even shifts in the location of dust particles in relation to the glass and the document could be detected. All such anomalies between pictures were accounted for and no signs of deterioration were observed.

This year, work began on the development and implementation of a documents degradation facility, which consists of a set of chambers for controlling the exposure of samples to various conditions. When completed, the chambers will be compatible with the CMS so that its image-processing capability can be used to evaluate changes to sample papers and parchments subjected to various temperatures, relative humidities, and light. CMS can measure dimensional changes and changes in reflectivity and, with the aid of the new degradation facility, rate the significance of the changes.

Preservation of Video Recordings

The advantages of videotape, such as instant playback capability, easy editing, and low cost of video production, have discouraged the use of motion picture film. Videotape, however, is not a long-lasting medium; each time it is played it loses same of the picture signal. After about 100 plays, the degradation is noticeable. The flexibility of the material will gradually decrease as the plasticizers slowly evaporate. Fluctuating high temperatures and relative humidities further exacerbate the degradation process by causing embrittlement of the recording layer. Most significantly, video pictures must be played on compatible playback equipment, which often requires that a video be copied to a new format. With analog recordings, there is a subsequent loss of quality with each generation.

This year, the National Archives Preservation Officer initiated discussions and correspondence to alert the library and archival community to the possibility of losing information stored in the video format. Among the findings of these exchanges were that stable environmental storage conditions below 20º C (68º F)/50% RH will slow down chemical and physical deterioration of magnetic tape. Other conclusions w-re the importance of using materials of superior quality and of copying to a new format every 10 years. Images that must not be lost should be copied onto motion picture film and stored in cold storage. New digital formats may guarantee the fidelity of duplicated images from one generation to the next, but it may still be necessary periodically to recopy the images onto a format compatible with the latest equipment to avoid obsolescence.


The Preservation Officer is working with the Joint Technical Commission of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and Audio Engineering Society (AES) to write standards, test methods, and recommend practices and specifications pertaining to the life expectancy and retrieval of analog and digital recordings on optical and magnetic system (including media). Through this Commission, ANSI plans to assign LE (Life Expectancy) numbers to media and systems. There is coordination between other ANSI groups, such as X3 (computers), (motion picture film and video), and NISO (library applications). Manufacturers, such as IBM, AMPEX, and Kodak, are w-11 represented, as well as user groups such as the Association of Image and Information Management (AIIM), Association of Recorded Sound Collections (ARSC), and government agencies, such as the New York Public Library, NIST, Library of Congress, and National Archives. The Commission is chaired by Dr. Peter Z. Adelstein, who chaired the National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council's Committee on the Preservation of Historical Records.

Office of the National Archives

The Office of the National Archives effort to preserve the records of the Federal government continued this year. More than $4 million was spent an preserving records on all media.

Holdings Maintenance

Holdings maintenance, a major element of the 20-Year Preservation Plan of the National Archives, continued to serve as the focal point for preservation initiatives. Holdings maintenance actions, which are designed to improve the storage environment of archival records and retard or eliminate the need for conservatism treatment, include placing records in acid-free folders and boxes, removing damaging fasteners, and enclosing fragile records in polyester sleeves. Over the past year, 162,499, cubic feet of records received holdings maintenance attention, an increase of 65,799 cubic feet over the previous year's efforts.

Conservators provided formal training for staff carrying out holdings maintenance and evaluated completed projects to ensure uniform and high-quality performance. The Research and Testing Laboratory of the Document Conservation Branch continued to monitor the quality of boxes and folders to ensure that all storage materials con-Ling into contact with archival records met National Archives specifications. Additional productivity standards for holdings maintenance work have been developed and implemented. The standards will be evaluated and revised as appropriate in the coming year to reflect work of varying complexity.

Training and Outreach

During the past year, the t Conservation Laboratory in Washington, DC, has been involved in a variety of teaching activities. Conservators have lectured on preservation topics in numerous training courses for the National Archives staff and have continued to develop and teach special courses to support preservation projects.

Training sessions on holdings maintenance were offered to provide guidance on basic preservation procedures relating to rehousing archival records. The sessions covered topics such as safe enclosures, removal of damaging fasteners, and appropriate marking devices for folders and boxes. Special courses were conducted to train microcamera operators on contract who will be filming records in the custody of the National Archives. Regulations governing the filming of records by private firm were covered, and representatives from companies were taught safe ways to handle records and procedures for dealing with fragile or item as well as those exhibiting historical features such as wafers, wax seals, or ribbon lacings.

Conservation staff continued to teach preservation seminars for new archivists who are in their first 2 years of training at the National Archives and to provide preservation training for archives technicians and participants in the "Modern Archives Institute." In addition, conservators have taught classes to the public, under the sponsorship of the Office of Public Programs, an the preservation of family papers and photographs.

Special Media Preservation

During the past year, the highest priority was given to microfilm duplication. In preparation for the opening of the new regional archives in Alaska, the microfilm duplication laboratory duplicated 26,000 rolls of microfilm from December of 1989 to April of 1990. The laboratory was also engaged in the reproduction of the 10,666 rolls of microfilm of the 1920 census; upon completion of the project, 17 complete sets of microfilm copies of the 1920 census will have been made, 12 of which will be housed at the regional archives. This year, film specialists duplicated more than 65,000 rolls.

In the area of sound and video preservation, the recording laboratory completed the duplication of House of Representatives video recordings, a joint project with the Library of Congress to ensure that each institution has cop3-es of all recordings. The recording laboratory also worked on Dallas Police Department audio recordings relating to the Kennedy assassination, which were recently accessioned from the Department of Justice, and the rerecording of the Lt. William Calley videotapes relating to the My Lai massacre from the records of the Judge Advocate General.

The recording laboratory staff continued a multiyear effort to rerecord the seriously deteriorated memobelt recordings of the interrogations that took place as part of the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials following World War II. As the year ended, the staff had completed 23 percent of the 14,000 belts. By the end of the year, the laboratory had reproduced a total of 140,590 minutes of video recordings and 90,758 minutes of sound recordings.

During the past year, the motion picture laboratory devoted a large amount of its staff time to assisting in the 1920 census project. In addition, the staff duplicated 537,011 feet of motion picture film. In a significant cost-cutting measure, the laboratory itself developed all the black-and-white film used in duplication.

One of the primary special media concerns of the National Archives is the preservation of still photography. This year, 43,080 prints and negatives were reproduced, many of them negatives on acetate film stock subject to sudden, rapid deterioration.

Office of Presidential Libraries

A major project at the Nixon Presidential Materials Project is the transfer of 2-inch videotape to "protection masters" for preservation purposes. Two-inch tape is now an obsolete format, and the manufacturer of the equipment that plays and records the tape is no longer supporting the system. Therefore, the Project is trying to complete preservation while 2-inch machines are still in operation.

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