WASHINGTON — On the table where some of the nation's treasures normally are displayed lay a jumble of brown, faded documents, a photo negative that looked as if it had been zapped in a microwave, and half of a historic phonograph record.
"We have Patty, but we miss Maxine and Laverne," Frank Burke, the acting archivist of the United States, said in a joking reference to a popular trio of the past, the Andrews Sisters.
There was no mistaking what the collection on the table represented: important artifacts of the nation's past that are crumbling and deteriorating.
"We sometimes call it jokingly 'Archival Alzheimer's" Burke said. "But it is a serious problem."
Burke and representatives of archivists from the 50 states put on the demonstration at the National Archives to call attention to a preservation crisis of important documents and artifacts in the nation's state archives.
"Our memory is at risk," Burke said. "We've preserved wetland, we've preserved wildlife, we've preserved downtown areas, we've preserved prehistoric sites and we've preserved buildings.
"Downtown areas and buildings are an indication of what we've done in the past. Documents tell us who did it and why they did it."
Documents Tell Story
The documents on the table told the story. One drawing, 1 1/2 feet wide and framed under glass, had become totally blank. There was photo negative of the "Longhurst Plant, Roxboro (N.C.) Cotton Mills" that was taken about 1935, judging by the parked cars. The negative looked as if jigsaw puzzle lines had been drawn across it. There was a paper that had been rescued by laminating it in plastic: a discovery motion filed before the Colonial Court in Beaufort, N.C., in 1726.
A study last year found that a large percentage of 2.5 billion pages of historical records held in state archives are physically deteriorating. Surprisingly, archivists said, the papers produced since the Industrial Revolution are most prone to fall apart because of their acid content.
The study said that to do the job properly, state archives will need $471 million in the next 10 years.
"There is a risk of having a documentation gap in the nation," said Howard Lowell, the Oklahoma state archivist who did the study. Although some documents can be restored at great expense and with considerable expertise, he said, "the best preservation step one can take is to provide adequate facilities, adequate housing, proper storage."
He said 75% to 85% of holdings in state archives need to be reprocessed by taking the documents from the way they are stored, removing them from their case, unfolding them, removing staples and foreign objects, placing them in acid-free folders that in turn are put in acid-free boxes and storing the boxes on shelves where temperature and relative humidity remain constant.
The purpose, he said, is "to manage the risk and to curb the accelerated deterioration."
David Hoober, the state archivist of Arizona, said his state Legislature passed two laws, one requiring that permanent records be put on certified quality paper, and another eliminating legal-size paper--and thus avert the future damage that comes from unfolding a document that has been creased.
He confessed somewhat sheepishly that his reference library had, for a long time, kept the records of the proceedings of Arizona's constitutional convention on a shelf next to the phone book and used them on a regular basis.
"We all know what we want others to do," he said. "We need to convince them to do it."