Friday, May 30, 2008


Above is what I consider the sign of a good day's research. Your mileage may vary; but in the archives I typically hang out it, this means that I've found records that no one else has thought to scan in yet, or at least not at that particular archives.

The records that I typically go through are from the Second World War. They were kept in filing cabinets for a while, then moved to boxes, stored, and finally turned over to the national archives. As they have time and money the archivists will go through and process these records, but the vast majority sit unprocessed, as they were turned over.

That includes ever staple, paper clip, binding strap, brad, red tape, what have you, that the government saw fit to use to keep the records together. Wartime fasteners were cheap metal, not stainless, and the records were not stored in climate-controlled facilities for the majority of their lives. Consequently the staples are rusted, the brads corroded, and generally this is not the best thing for the records.

So the archivists at the branches I've researched at generally support the removal of these fasteners in records they haven't processed in order to at least slow the affect they have on the records. I've heard recently that NARA College Park has a section with a new manager who does not believe in the removal of these parts; feels it destroys the integrity of the records. Perhaps it makes it more difficult for the researcher to determine which belongs with what, but I've never seen records where I couldn't figure it out by just looking it over for a minute.

Generally the archivists want to remove these fasteners for you; few people really consider the true value of a sheet of paper when they pull a staple out. While that piece of onion skin with a routing slip might just be a piece of paper, it may also be the last record in existence of the details of an event, and that makes it a national treasure.

But, in some cases if you build up enough trust with an archivist they might trust you with one of the micro spatulas they use to remove staples. In my case, with all of the sheet metal bending experience I had as an aircraft mechanic I pull the staples out very cleanly. In fact, there was an assistant at one of the branches that I specifically did not get to pull staples for me after I saw how ham-handed he was the first time I asked.

The above pile was amassed after about 3-4 hours of research in Naval Records at the Archives in San Bruno, California. Many of the pieces of paper they were removed from bore rust stains or were torn from years of being held by a paper clip. It's satisfying to me to both scan those images and turn them into web documents so that they don't just sit out-of-sight in a box as well as help with the preservation of them so that a future archivist wanting to answer questions might find them in usable form.

The first document I posted from San Bruno was USS Intrepid - Handling after damage but I've started on the second; USS San Francisco Gunfire Damage - Battle of Guadalcanal, November 13, 1942. It's nowhere near done and I don't recommend clicking on any of the links yet, but I offer it as a sneak preview and as proof that yes, I do work on things besides the odd post here and there!.

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