TIME TRAVELLING — PEF Division 194 members Sarah Kim, Maria Holden, Susan Bove and Jessica Kornheisl examine documents and maps from the Revolutionary War era at the state Archives in Albany.
— Photo by Deborah A. Miles
140 million items stored at Cultural Education Center
State Archives members preserve national treasures
By DEBORAH A. MILES
Susan Bove, an archives conservation specialist, picks up a letter by the corners with utmost care. It was written from Colonel Henry Ludington to General Israel Putnam about four prisoners, spies and deserters from the Revolutionary War era. The yellowed document, along with 1,000 more from this period, are being restored by PEF Division 194 members who work at the New York State Archives in Albany.
Each faded piece of paper, many scorched from the 1911 fire at the state Capitol where the papers were originally stored, receives a thorough evaluation before the restoration process begins.
It is a white-glove type of job, where being painstakingly meticulous in a sterile environment is the norm. The work is done in the newly renovated area on the 11th floor in the Cultural Education Center.
To some people this job may seem tedious. The restoration staff of five, however, views the labor as intriguing, especially when they come across a letter written by Benedict Arnold, a major general who was then commandant of West Point in 1777, to a spy, Major John André.
“If the letter had fallen into British hands, it would have been the downfall of West Point,” said Maria Holden, preservation administrator.
Holden went into detail describing André’s journey and said he tucked the letter in his boot sock for safekeeping. Before he could deliver it to the British, he was discovered to be a spy and was hung. Fortunately, the letter was saved.
Arnold’s name, of course, later became synonymous with betrayal.
Dedicated to preservation
The restoration of Revolutionary War materials, a two-year project, is the current undertaking at the Archives, and includes conserving three-dimensional objects such as a pistol George Washington received from the Marquis de Lafayette.
Since the Archives opened in 1978, PEF members have overseen the restoration of 12,000 pages of Dutch Colonial papers, a Native American Indian Collection, vintage photographs, the Charter of 1664, Erie Canal maps and drawings, and 55,000 film scripts and censorship files, one for every movie shown in New York from 1921–1965, perhaps the largest collection in the world. These items and more are all stored in a temperature-and humidity-controlled area called “the stacks.”
The state Archives department occupies more than an acre and holds 140 million other historic treasures.
For a select number of valuable, badly damaged records, the staff develops a treatment plan for each individual piece. Every document is analyzed, tested for the ink type, surface cleaned with a vinyl eraser, washed, pressed and flattened, air dried and mended.
“The mending is done with Japanese paper called kizukishi,” Bove said. “It is made of plant fibers and pasted with Japanese wheat starch.”
Sarah Kim, an education specialist, demonstrates the mending as she repairs a torn page from an 18th century New York map. She gently pulls feather-like fibers from the Japanese paper and applies a patch with tweezers to the tear. The Japanese wheat starch, a benign adhesive, becomes transparent.
It’s a delicate process but worth the effort. Holden said, “Our goal is preservation and for people, from scholars to students, to have access to these materials.”
Living in the age when computer files are replacing paper is a concern at the Archives.
“It’s much more challenging to preserve electronic records, than it is to preserve paper records,” Holden said. “There are more than 80,000 cartons of paper records, many in fragile condition. Nothing bad will happen to them if we don’t deal with them right away. They are in a stable storage environment.
“We got into this work before electronic records were being produced. Electronic records are different,” she said. “They are created on unstable media. Tapes and discs can break, and hardware becomes obsolete in five or 10 years.”
“Things are changing so fast,” said Judy Hohmann, director of public programs and outreach. “Staffing is an issue especially in some fields such as electronic records. It’s not just an issue the state Archives is facing, it’s an international issue.”
The sheer volume of archival records and the great amount of care they require does not daunt Holden. She applies for national and federal grants to help tackle the backlog, as with other projects. This allows for temporary staff to join the conservation team.
But the five PEF members who work in the lab don’t seem to be intimidated when thousands of papers are brought to them to be preserved. They find the historical details fascinating and take pride in preserving these treasures for future generations.
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