Behind the Scenes Document Preservation at the National Archives, 1939

Ever wondered how records end up in archives? How they get into those clean and organized boxes, neatly arranged and labeled on the archives shelf? As someone who has worked in archives, I can tell you that there are many steps that get archival records from their creators to a reading room. Lots of labor too.

I came across this series of photos taken at the National Archives in 1939 that show the process of bringing new records in and preparing them for storage and research. Many of the things that were considered cutting edge record preservation at the time like fumigating, and laminating are all obsolete today. Archival science has come a long way since then!

NARA Document Trick
Historical documents guarded with great care by National Archives. The treatment and careful handling of valuable historical documents is of prime consideration at the National Archives, Records, legal papers, historical data, etc., of all descriptions must be preserved so that they last indefinitely. This picture shows documents being unloaded at the National Archives by a worker who uses a specially hand-made truck. Library of Congress.
This chamber is used to fumigate the documents. A gas is used to kill any kind of insect life that may be living between the pages of the documents. The gas is left on for about three hours. Library of Congress.


After the documents are enclosed in the chamber, all air is drawn out and the gas turned on. Library of Congress.
At the end of three hours the chamber is opened and the documents are ready for the next treatment. Library of Congress.
After leaving the gas chamber the documents are worked on by air blowers to eliminate all dust and foreign particles. The dust from the papers is carried out through the screen in the background into a purifier. Library of Congress.
Some documents are slightly torn or have come apart. This worker moistens the upturned edges so that every piece will lie flat in its right place, then the document is pieced together. Library of Congress.
This phase of the work is known as the humidifying chamber. Papers are left in here in trays and the air remains moist at all times to dampen the papers. Library of Congress.
After leaving the humidifying chamber, the documents are brought to the special ironers to take all remaining wrinkles out. Library of Congress.
Preservation of documents has long been a problem in libraries and offices of record. It was once done by a process known as ‘crepelining,’ which consisted in placing coarsely woven silk over and under the paper to be preserved with the use of adhesive. The most modern process now used is called the laminating process and consists in sandwiching the document between two sheets of thin, transparent cellulose acetate. This is then placed between two highly polished metal plates and subjected to heat and pressure in a hydraulic press. Library of Congress.
The documents between two highly polished metal plates and sandwiched between two sheets of cellulose acetate is placed in the hydraulic press. Library of Congress.
In the powerful press, the sheets of acetate, under heat and pressure ‘melt’ into the pores of the paper and adhere to each other as well. One additional advantage of this process is that, after being pressed with the sheets of cellulose acetate, the paper is thinner and takes up less room than it did originally. The result is a sheet of paper and acetate which comes off the polished metal plates as a single sheet. Tests for the aging of this material made by the Bureau of Standards in Washington have shown that this treatment of the paper, called laminating is as permanent as it is possible to make any record of paper. Library of Congress.
After processing the documents, they are placed in file. This is the Division of War Department Archives. Library of Congress.
Spacious Filing Spaces
Another one of the spacious filing spaces in the National Archives: the Division of Commerce Department Archives. Library of Congress.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: