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Vanishing Records

May 2024
1min read


Sir: We were pleased to see that A MERICAN H ERITAGE has such active interest in the preservation of historical source materials [“The Case of the Vanishing Records,” August, 1969]. Deterioration is, of course, an archenemy of history—an extremely serious matter that deserves increased public attention, particularly from historians: You performed a valuable public service by publishing the article. At the same time, we should point out a few facts that the article did not adequately reflect.

Included in what you call documents are manuscripts and archives. Being the holder of more such material than any other depository in the Western Hemisphere, at least, our primary concern—like that of archivists and curators everywhere—is the preservation of unique documents. Unlike most books, photographs, and motion pictures, documents do not normally exist in multiple copies. Your “case,” then, fails to encompass the entire problem or to direct more than passing attention to what could be considered the most dire aspect of the problem.

For documents, the areas of uncertainty are at least as ominous as those that you identified for books. It is not uncommon to find documents stored in envelopes or boxes whose acid content is hazardous to the contents they “protect.” Documents, too, need to be deacidified; and if that process is somewhat easier for loose documents than for bound books, it is far more complicated by the vastly greater problem of searching out and testing documents that need to be de-acidified.

Moreover, many documents are written with materials whose longevity is less certain than printer’s ink: consider pencil, ball-point pens, and varieties of typewriter ribbons and carbon papers. Everything considered, the archivist and manuscript curator might be excused for looking somewhat enviously at the problems of the librarian.

You will be pleased to know that we are not just wringing our hands about our preservation problems. For some months we have been working with the Society of American Archivists and the U.S. National Bureau of Standards on the definition and funding of research that could result in standards for longlived documents. …

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