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Lazarus archive: St. Louis facility restores burned or otherwise damaged records

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 1, 2012 - Blackened by fire, browned by heat and yellowed by age, much of what sits in the box in front of Marta O'Neill looks less like the sheaf of official documents it once was and more like what it is now - a sad mixture of singed paper and crumbled ash.

But O'Neill knows ash holds secrets others might think were lost forever.

"If you look at something go in a month's time from some charred, crumpled, mold-damaged wad of paper to a completely useable record, that's a very tangible thing you can see," said O'Neill, a preservation officer at the National Personnel Records Center run by the National Archives at St. Louis.

That you can see much at all on countless fire-damaged records being carefully reconstructed at the recently built North County facility is something of a miracle in itself. Most of them came from the ruins of the famous 1973 fire at the center's predecessor on Page Avenue. The legacy of that blaze created something of a nightmare for some military veterans who saw proof of their service go up in smoke. Since then, the government has been trying to carefully piece back together what remains.

"I don't know that any facility in the country or even in the Western Hemisphere is dealing with the size and volume of burned paper that's been damaged by fire and water, now being retained, salvaged and stored," said Wanda Williams, archivist at the institution.

A World of Paper

The recovery project has been going on for more than a decade, which far predates the modern facility that now houses it. The new National Personnel Records Center was just completed earlier this year. Resting on almost 30 acres near Hazelwood East High School, the more than 474,000-square-foot facility is built to house about 2.3 million cubic feet of records. Even with almost 6,000 boxes a day coming into the building, the move-in still isn't expected to be complete until September when the structure will store approximately 100 million or more civilian and military records comprising a mind-boggling 9 billion pages and artifacts.

The sheer numbers can be dizzying - as can the tour for a visitor who makes the mistake of looking down through the metal mesh catwalk in the records bay inviting a view straight through to the floor of the three-story building. The record bays have units 29 shelves high laden with boxes upon boxes of files.

The oceans of paper can leave one with an obvious question.

"People often ask why don't we just digitize them," said Bill Seibert, chief of archival operations.

It was a query that was answered with an intensive year-long study before construction could begin on the $115-million facility. In fact, it would have cost billions of dollars in staffing time to go electronic, not to mention decades of removing fasteners and hand-flattening documents for scanning. Worse, some old paper is simply too brittle to be fed through modern equipment.

That's in addition to the inevitable changes in electronic formats that regularly sweep the computing industry necessitating new rounds of recopying to the latest media.

"We had to show that it was more economically cost-effective to maintain the paper rather than to reformat it," Seibert said. "All in all, this is lower technology but it is much more cost-effective for the taxpayer."

Still, electronic resources do exist and many are available through the archives. A research area downstairs provides free access to various databases, including commercial genealogy websites.

Better yet, thanks to a deal struck in 2004, military service records are now examinable by more than simply the subject or the immediate next of kin. After 62 years pass from the date of the individual's separation from service, the record is open for use by the general public. Seibert said that's been an important point due to an upsurge in interest by the grandchildren of WW II vets who want to see that history.

"Before that agreement was reached, the records were in sort of an archival limbo," he said. "They were not appraised as permanent holdings of the federal government. They were temporary records, and it wasn't quite clear what would happen to them."

Meanwhile, the institution is working hard to introduce itself to the public. Beginning in October, a "Documented Rights" exhibit, which runs until March, has examined the struggle for equality and citizenship with a continuing exhibit of artifacts and papers as well as monthly programs on specific aspects of the topic. December's event focused on the internment of Japanese-Americans during WW II. Next month's spotlight will look at immigration with a Jan. 19 event that will feature a naturalization ceremony, though details are still to be worked out.

"Documented Rights" itself contains such varied items as Robert F. Kennedy's federal identification and baseball legend Jackie Robinson's court martial papers. The trial - and eventual acquittal - stemmed from an incident in which he refused to move to the back of a bus because of his race.

In fact, from Steve McQueen to Elvis Presley to Gen. George Patton, the National Archives has a special file of about 600 or so personnel records of prominent Americans.

"That's a discreet collection, which is our most intrinsically and monetarily valuable records," O'Neill said.

Fragments of the Past

Wearing a white lab coat and studious glasses, Sara Holmes looks every bit the part of a physician or laboratory researcher but what the senior preservation specialist is interested in looking at right now is two small pebbles next to a rusty bit of paper clip. They were recovered from inside a file on board the U.S.S. Arizona, the American warship that serves as a submerged museum after its sinking by the Japanese 70 years ago this month.

"It does open the possibility that we've got a little bit of Pearl Harbor itself that got mixed in with the record," she said of the tiny rocks.

Due to its expertise in the field, the National Archives at St. Louis has been the site of recent document recovery work on records from the Arizona, many of them damaged by water or fire. Holmes said she's examined more than 50 so far.

She noted there was high interest among her technicians wanting to work on the Arizona project and interact with the personnel documents.

"There is a lot of artifactual value to them because they have scars from the bombing themselves," she said. "They also have a lot of information about the people as individuals so you can get to know them as well."

Not all burns are created equal. Holmes noted the unusual circular browning patterns on the record in front of her centered near the middle of the folded document. That's because the metal fastener in the middle heated up, charring the parchment around it.

"This is more like a burn from an oven," she said. "It didn't come into direct contact with the fire."

Even when things do come into direct contact with flame, all hope is not lost, as the recovery of the 1973 records show. O'Neill explains that although the paper is burnt, the ink may still be intact, resting invisibly on the ash. By electronically scanning the document and then separating the color layers, previously unreadable information begins to come to life.

But fire isn't paper's only enemy. O'Neill said damage can include tar, roofing material, dirt or mold. Even insect infestations, like those from hungry termites or cockroaches, can wreak havoc. O'Neill notes that spiders aren't so much of a problem as they don't eat paper. In fact, their diet sometimes helpfully includes insects that do.

Different types of documents require different treatments. Mold may have to be neutralized or vacuumed away using a specially modified surgical pump. Water damage can also be a problem, buckling or distorting paper. Ironically, sometimes the answer can be the introduction of more moisture. Humidifying certain paper can make it pliable enough to flatten it out again.

"We also give documents baths and submerge them in water depending on the type of paper and ink on them," O'Neill said. "You can submerge them to get a lot of the chemical degredents and metal particles out of it. We also sometimes use buffering agents to make the paper less acidic and balance out the alkalinity."

As for the 1973 documents, more is often at stake than idle curiosity or historical value. A veteran's eligibility for benefits or honors can hinge on proper documentation.

"Sometimes we consider ourselves to be like a MASH unit," O'Neill said noting that rush requests for a particular veteran's file may expedite the process where necessary. "We do what we need to get the information. Then the record might go back into the file and not get any further treatment until it's called up again."

That sort of triage is needed because of the sheer volume of records from the fire and the slow, painstaking process for treatment. Over the past decade, the National Archives has fully treated about 15,000 to 20,000 records, a figure that sounds impressive but is only a fraction of the staggering 6.5 million records that await the institution's recovery efforts from the fire.

It's estimated about 18 million other records went up in flames entirely and sometimes treatment of the surviving documents can take as much as a month.

At the present rate, O'Neill admits the process will not be completed in her lifetime, nor even over several centuries. Yet despite this, each record that gives up its secrets is another small victory.

"It's a very tangible, hands-on kind of work where you can see immediate results," she said. "Not too many things in life give you an immediate result."

David Baugher is a freelance reporter. 

David Baugher
David Baugher is a freelance writer in St. Louis who contributed to several stories for the STL Beacon.