Archives In The News

March 12th, 2021

By Becky Chapin, Archivist

I was sharing the news of the NPR story on locked letters, “Reading A Letter That’s Been Sealed For More Than 300 Years — Without Opening It,” with my coworkers in a staff meeting when they told me they had never heard of locked letters before. Well, I hadn’t either until I read the article, but I had come across similar letters in our own collection that were folded intricately, just not this intricately.

Did you know that the gummed envelope as we know it wasn’t created until the 1830s? Before then, people would fold their letters up so that the writing was on the interior and they could address the blank portion of the paper. I won’t go into the specifics of the locked letters because I encourage you to read the article or listen to the radio piece. What is super interesting about this article was the work behind being able to read these letters, without ‘unlocking’ the letters and potentially damaging the paper or the writing.

Many people have been working towards the idea of virtually unwrapping scrolls and letters to prevent destroying the items themselves. The first step is scanning the letter with an X-ray machine which will show how the letter has been folded and locked into itself, then using a computer that analyzes the folds and then virtually unfold the letter. (also see the New York Times website which shows a video of the technique). Then, because the inks 300+ years ago contained metal, they can read the letters! How cool!

Also in the news:

The Library of Congress finished digitizing 23 early presidential collections in December 2020 in a two decade-long initiative.

Way back in July, an archivist looked at the video game “Tom Clancy’s The Division 2” because it included a mission to recover the Declaration of Independence from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) building. Interestingly, in the game a rogue militia captures the building along with several other museums and landmarks across the virtual Washington DC. In the virtual world, one of the safehouses, The Archives, “is in an unnamed office building’s basement. It exhibits stereotypes about archives, including dusty boxes and rusting film reels.”

“Along the way, the game treated this archivist player to flooded compact-shelving rooms and staircases. In interviews, Massive Entertainment revealed they consulted with experts and used GIS and LiDAR data to ensure that virtual DC players experienced a realistic recreation, including working with Coast Guard experts to use data to determine where flooding occurs in the real world. My research did not answer whether developers consulted with NARA to faithfully recreate its spaces.”

In December, WROC-TV highlighted Rochester audio archivist Matt Guarnere who is working to save the music of the Rochester scene by digitizing and restoring the sounds from records, audio reels, and more.

Sealed papers of an anti-immigration activist are at the center of a lawsuit against the University of Michigan that was filed in 2018 and recently went to the Michigan Supreme Court. The creator of the papers originally wanted the whole collection to be closed, but archivists convinced him to open up 15 out of 25 boxes for access. The results of this case could affect archives across the country.

Lastly is a complicated story about presidential records. Book Riot wrote an interesting article about the former president’s tenure and archiving.

 The Presidential Records Act (PRA) of 1978, 44 U.S.C. ß2201-2209, governs the official records of Presidents and Vice Presidents that were created or received after January 20, 1981 (i.e., beginning with the Reagan Administration). The PRA changed the legal ownership of the official records of the President from private to public, and established a new statutory structure under which Presidents, and subsequently NARA, must manage the records of their Administrations.

                        –National Archives and Records Administration

As part of the act, NARA receives all records of the former president to be preserved. Many articles came about in the last few months in which historians and archivists expressed their concerns that there won’t be a complete and accurate set of documents for historical preservation from the previous presidency. Throughout his term, the former president was known to shred and discard documents that should have been maintained for historic record. A former White House records analyst even spent time taping a letter back together the president had shredded instead of saved.

After the 2020 election, NARA had to invoke the Presidential Records Act because the president’s office initially resisted the transfer of records. The former president’s Twitter record was also saved even after his account was removed due to the work of ProPublica in a project called Politwoops which tracked his tweets from June 15, 2015 to January 08, 2021. NARA also preserved these tweets along with all other social media content related to the former president in his library website.

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