6 Things You Learn Preserving America's Past
A government document is like an awkward drunken email to your ex -- as much as you want to forget about it, it's out there somewhere and can reappear at any given moment. The difference is that all of those government documents end up in gigantic, government-run archives. We sent one of our interviewers to Washington, D.C. to speak with a source who works at one of those archives. She preferred not to say which one, but she gave us the inside scoop about saving relics of America's past from ending up next to your Taco Bell receipt in the trash.
We Have No Idea What We Have
Archives like the one our source works at are essentially where every piece of federal government paperwork is, was, and will forevermore be stored, from now until the end of the world as we know it. That includes everything from the United States Constitution to a tissue President Bush blew his nose into in October of '92. Alright, so maybe we don't have much in the way of presidential snot. But out in Suitland, Maryland, there are rows of files that go on forever. There are billions of papers in our source's archive -- and that's only one branch of it. Nationwide there are so many papers in need of storage that the federal government literally had to create a cave system in Missouri just to house more records.
This was an inevitable consequence of putting bears in Congress.
The sheer volume of paper out there means that there's simply no way that archivists have been able to go through everything. Some boxes haven't been opened since the 1800s, and we may never have any idea what these things are. See, archivists need permission to go through material like that. To do so, you need to tell the higher-ups specifically where you want to look and what you're looking for. You can't simply start randomly spelunking in piles of government papers -- the files will get messed up even worse than they are now. Somewhere in our records are papers that could change what we know about the history of our country. Every archivist knows this. But we need to get through everything first, and with mundane governmental papers taking priority (looking at you, Veterans Affairs), archivists rarely get the chance to discover new things.
"America isn't ready to learn about West Dakota."
But archivists do make discoveries all the time. They've found everything from a letter from the FBI to MLK to unopened letters from Axis families wondering how their sons were doing in POW camps. Sometimes letters are immediately classified, and other times they are brought straight to the public's attention. But for the most part, we don't find letters and documents like these on purpose -- it's usually totally by accident.
It Is Extremely Easy To Lose Important Documents
In terms of structural integrity, paper is the 98-pound nerd of media storage techniques. It's stupidly weak, especially to fire, and as a result, we've lost everything from the Temple Law Library (which held tons of documents regarding our founding fathers) to over 70 percent of the Archives of military personnel in our St. Louis holding in 1973. In St. Louis, archivists are still sifting through all the charred files today, over 40 years later.
Hosing the ashes down didn't help much.
"We call these the 'B Files,'" our source explained. "St. Louis held all the World War II personnel files, and with so many who served, we have teams working there today over four decades later piecing together soldiers' files on who they served for and what campaigns they were on."
The St. Louis B Files were a huge loss. It caused an enormous headache for veterans who needed proof of service in order to qualify for loans and other benefits, because that proof had literally gone up in flames.
"Sorry, sir. You could have lost that leg anywhere."
But the real reason that files up and disappear has less to do with physical damage and more to do with the buildings in which they're stored. We've got the ability to fix basic water damage, and even some fire damage. It turns out that, much like that 98-pound nerd again, the best place to store paper documents is in a cool, dark underground setting. So when universities or museums store things way above ground, over time, they'll take a lot of damage. Digital scanning is used as a backup, but computers can crash. We need documents to stay underground, and we can't keep building them their own personal Batcaves forever.
We Have Destroyed So Many Important Documents
Archivists preserve the past, but they've had to learn the best methods through trial and error. The problem was that each new method was a total crapshoot.
"One notorious we are still correcting today is cellulose nitrate," our source explained. "In the 1920s, cellulose was found to reduce water and air damage when it covered the paper it was protecting. The nitrate is the same as what film was made of, which was extremely flammable."
"Next, let's coat the floors with gasoline; it'll keep the ants away!"
You may remember that the flammability of nitrate film played an important role in Inglorious Basterds. After a while, archivists discovered that anything they covered in cellulose nitrate was as flammable as your crazy uncle's temper when you mention Obama. Not only did archivists nearly cover numerous historical treasures in cellulose nitrate; they were about to practically infuse the parchment with it. If they had, the damage could have been irreversible. Archivists then tried cellulose acetate (safety film), but this hurt papers to the point that we needed to put all of them in cold storage to stop the deterioration.
No, not like that.
"Nowadays, we do dry, low-oxygen protective measures in protective plastic / nylon sleeves that work fine. For older documents, like the Constitution, we actually place them in no-oxygen environments," said our source.
But up until the 1960s, everything they were doing was pretty much destroying documents, or at least making them more flammable than a drunken Human Torch.
Our Famous Documents Are Basically Disintegrating
You might recognize our source's anonymous-ish place of work from the Nicolas Cage masterpiece National Treasure, wherein the Caged One swipes the Declaration of Independence. But if that happened in real life, it would disintegrate like the Nazis at the end of Raiders Of The Lost Ark. The Declaration hadn't been exposed to oxygen since the 1950s, as it had been in two oxygen-free containers. But in 2004, we had to replace the oxygen-free frames.
"Uh, we know nothing about that extra signature in blue crayon."
Once it is exposed to oxygen, it will become extremely brittle very fast, as it hasn't had time to ease back into the environment. Parchment is strong, which is why things like Gutenberg Bibles have survived. But if you tried to roll the Declaration up like Cage does in the movie, you'd have a bunch of bland, musty confetti. All that jostling around is not good for a 240-year-old document.
The last time we took the major documents out in the early 2000s, we had to make sure it was actually safe to take out so that we wouldn't cause more damage to it:
"Let's shoo out all those pigeons first."
And then we quickly and carefully moved it into the new oxygen-free container, which should be good for a few centuries or so.
Humanity may destroy itself by 2250, but they won't destroy this.
"There is so much we have to do to keep them in the condition they are in now, but if we let them deteriorate any more, all those words and signatures would be faded away forever," said our source.
Some of the older documents are even put in such low-light areas that we need special green laser lighting for people to even read them. Check out the Magna Carta here:
"Magna Carta" would be a great name for a green laser weapon.
It looks like Frankenstein's toilet paper, not one of the first documents limiting the power of monarchial government over its constituency.
Forgeries Are Surprisingly Common
Many documents we get have been changed. People use whiteout on typos, or even reword things on the originals in red freaking ink.
We're hoping this is copy editing, and not some medieval blood text ritual.
"As preservers, we just assume everything that has been altered has been done originally," our source explained. "Many documents come on with lines scratched out or with notes on them, so it's a normal occurrence."
You can see this in drafts of the Constitution; notes have been written, words have been crossed out, and complete sentences have been revised.
"Congress shall pass no law abridging the right OF STEVE TO GET MCDONALD'S BREAKFAST
AFTER 10:30, NO MATTER WHAT SOME PIMPLY TEEN MANAGER TELLS HIM."
What's scary is that a lot of alterations have been done for the sake of literally rewriting history. In the 1970s, archivists discovered Scientologists rooting around in the Archives, changing everything they saw fit. They didn't get to do much (thank Xenu we're so unorganized) and were promptly arrested. There have also been weird Mormon and anti-Mormon factions going in and ninja-editing history. The most well-known, the Salamander Letters, are purportedly firsthand accounts of the relationship between Joseph Smith and a magical salamander. They caused huge debate, despite that entire crazy sentence you just read. They're proven forgeries, but conspiracy theorists won't shut up about them. It's not always such a clear-cut case, though:
"When in preservation rooms, we actually look over and try and spot things like wording not belonging to that era and other little things to see if anything has been changed. Sometimes the changes are easy to spot, but other times it's almost impossible to see."
It's like analyzing a Wikipedia page without being able to view the edit history.
The problem is that very knowledgeable people can make really good forgeries. Some historians have altered documents in order to "prove" that they were right about something, even though they were originally wrong. Across the pond, fake documents slipped into the British archives almost convinced people that MI5 killed Heinrich Himmler. A quick edit to the original document, and history changed. "Behold, the awesome power of editors!" is something we yell a lot, but we honestly never thought it would be accurate.
People Try To Repair Documents On Their Own, And Destroy Them
If you find some amazing historical document in your attic, for the love of Bald Eagles and Apple Pie, do not try to piece it back together with Scotch Tape and spit. It just causes so much damage. The adhesive gets into the paper and leaves marks. Removing the tape is also a huge task, as any ink stuck underneath can get ripped off with the tape. The Archives have had signatures of famous people disappear because tape was placed over a rip nearby.
"Duct tape worked on the screen door, it'll work on the Louisiana Purchase."
Even the Declaration of Independence had this happen. You can see marks on it from the 1800s where they tried to smooth out creases and only aggravated them, causing sections of it to degrade even faster from the new wear and tear.
"Some archivist in the 1940s decided that, because there were rips in the Declaration, they might as well tape them and glue other parts to make it look good," said our source. "This did untold damage, took years to only partially repair, and has led to greater deterioration of the Declaration. Other documents were not so lucky, and we had to piece together the document after the person 'repaired' it by doing irreversible damage."
"So that's a shredder, not a laminator. Well, now we know."
A surprisingly large number of people think that ammonia is a good paper cleaner (spoiler alert: it's not). Glue. Tape. Wax. Grease. All bad. The best thing to do is leave the document alone or put it in a plastic sleeve and keep it out of sunlight. You know how comic books stay protected? That's actually one of the best ways to do it. If only we'd always treated the very foundation of our country with the same dignity and respect as an issue of Silver Surfer.
Evan V. Symon is the Interview Finder Guy for Cracked. Have an awesome experience or job you would like to tell the world about? Hit up the tipline at firstname.lastname@example.org
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