Blog – Document Recovery

How Does the National Archives & Records Administration (NARA) Preserve Historic Documents?

The National Archives & Records Administration (NARA) sets the national standard in regards to document preservation. In 2012, the agency had about 10 billion logical data records and nearly 1 million copies of digitized media. In addition to the two main buildings in Washington D.C. and Maryland (Archives I and II), NARA has affiliated facilities and regional facilities throughout the U.S., and also maintains the Presidential Library system. The media that NARA maintains include still pictures, paper documents, maps, books, motion pictures and electronic media.

Archive Preservation and Storage Environments

archive document preservation

When preserving archives, NARA creates an environment that protects records and allows researchers to use and copy them. To maintain the best storage conditions for the Archive II building, NARA uses a mechanical system that regulates the environment. In addition to regulating temperatures and humidity levels, the air filtration and handling systems eliminates gases and other particles in the  air that could cause damage.

NARA stores media by material type because different materials thrive in different conditions. For example, black-and-white photographs are in a different area than black-and-white motion pictures. To help preserve archives, employees and researchers have workstations outside the storage areas that also have controlled environments for optimal protection.

Document Preservation and Archival Finishes

When designing its storage facilities, NARA eliminated materials that could potentially harm the media stored, such as:

  • Cellulose nitrate-based adhesives and lacquers
  • Cellulose acetate
  • Asbestos
  • Certain adhesives and sealants
  • Sulfur
  • Vinyl
  • Oil-based paints or finishes
  • Items that emit formaldehyde

The shelves, cabinets and carts that NARA uses have an electrostatically applied powder coating that don’t emit harmful gases or cause discoloration. Furthermore, NARA performs holdings maintenance, or preservation practices, to prolong the life of records. These actions include:

  • Removing damaging fasteners
  • Regularly dusting shelves and boxes
  • Reproducing unstable materials, like Thermofax copied documents

Mobile Storage

With the largest high-density mobile storage system in the world, NARA’s compact, mobile shelving design saves space and money. Instead of rows of archived materials on shelves, like at a library, the shelving units are close together. The units are on rails that electronically slide in and out on mobile carriages.

Fire Protection

NARA uses a unique fire sprinkler, detection and alarm system. The design of the mobile storage system creates a series of flues, which help the fire system detect and put out fires faster with the help of the suppression system. Each floor and section of the Archives II building has its own alarm system and sprinkler zone, which protect other areas of the building from a fire and limit water damage. The areas that contain archives also have a special HVAC system that removes smoke.

Securing the Archives

Many of the documents and artifacts in the NARA buildings are invaluable and irreplaceable, and some contain classified information. Individuals must use special cards that activate security doors to enter non-public areas. Security personnel must examine everything brought into the research center.

To further aid archive preservation, NARA makes thousands of digital copies of its archived items per year. While the copies serve as a backup, the agency makes many of them available to the public through its website.

Preservation for Your Documents

For your own document preservation efforts, it’s simpler than you may think to have a NARA-like setup. Polygon offers custom temperature, air quality and humidity control solutions to meet custom preservations needs. The restoration experts can also help you create a document recovery section to a disaster preparedness plan to minimize loss in the event of a disaster. Contact Polygon today to learn more.

Photo by Ray Tsang via CC license

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