Publication Date

March 19, 2013



The US National Archives (NARA) recently held its annual Preservation EXPOsed! event in Washington, DC, highlighting a diverse slate of preservation specialists and topics. The event, which Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero introduced, was made up of three elements: short talks given by conservation professionals about their work; exhibits and displays about the conservation of important documents at NARA such as the Declaration of Independence; and tables staffed by conservation and preservation specialists dedicated to different media, including books, paper, film and video, digital artifacts, photographs, and others. Members of the public could engage the specialists in several ways: from casual conversations to prescheduled appointments to evaluate their personal artifacts and receive recommendations on their preservation.

A NARA specialist in book preservation demonstrates some of the tools of the trade for the public at the recent Preservation EXPOsed! event.

The conservation talks, held in the McGowan Theater, were interesting to both the nonspecialists and the NARA staff themselves, many of whom were in attendance to learn more about what others in the organization were doing. Talks on topics such as the late 18th-century method of “locking” important documents allowed the audience to both observe how embedded physical evidence is collected for conservation, and to attempt to unlock sample “locked” letters themselves. Other talks included one on the science behind a forgery committed on an important Lincoln document, how sustainability is affecting conservation at NARA facilities, salvaging code books from a WWII shipwreck, and the preservation challenges facing a cache of 2,700 instructional films donated by the US military, among others. As part of the film preservation talk, audience members were treated to an exclusive viewing of How to Succeed with Brunettes, an etiquette short film produced for soldiers in 1967.

Out in the hallway, tables were lined up and staffed by preservation and conservation teams, and visitors could handle materials and tools and talk with the friendly preservationists about their work in various mediums. School groups and tourists came through, but the event, which was held in the middle of a work day, really merited the high-volume crowds that PBS’s better-known Antiques Roadshow attracts. Although the staff was not trained to assess value the way Roadshow’s are, it was an excellent opportunity for the public to have an intimate look, not only at how these highly trained specialists pursue their vocation, but at the critical work the public’s tax dollars fund every day. Given the recent sequestration cuts to the National Archives, one participant suggested that they were fortunate to even hold the event at all, and that a similar public event scheduled in the future had already been cancelled. Chris Isleib, director of communications for the US National Archives, acknowledged the difficulties in an e-mail: “Much of the required sequestration cuts will be taken from administrative and support costs, and they will have a program impact: slowing public access to records, reducing exhibits and public programs, and limiting the amount of permanently valuable records that NARA can accept from other agencies.” Despite these challenges, Isleib maintains that NARA will continue its high level of services to the public, and hopefully programs like Preservation EXPOsed! will get the audience it deserves next year.

This post first appeared on AHA Today.

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