Archive for the ‘NARA Records’ Category

Conservation Challenge: The Magna Carta

Written on: July 22, 2011 | 2 Comments

A career-long fascination and appreciation of the work of those involved in conservation and preservation can be traced to my very first job in the MIT Humanities Library. There I learned about the special needs of vellum and leather bindings, the temperature and humidity requirements of paper, and the principle of never doing anything which cannot be undone. So it is with some special interest and pride that I brag about the effort that our conservation staff consistently puts forth on often difficult and delicate conservation tasks.  Their recent work on the Magna Carta is a great example of what they can do.

In a project funded by the document’s owner, David Rubenstein, the staff provided weeks of intensive treatment to the parchment and seal and eventually revealed previously illegible writing to the Magna Carta using ultra-violet photography.

The Rubenstein Magna Carta, before treatment, in an ultraviolet fluorescence photo of the parchment. Ultraviolet reveals obliterated text in damaged areas. Click on the image to see the full document and the damaged area in the bottom right side. (Photo by Sarah Raithel.)

The treatment completes the first phase of a project to re-encase and display the document publicly.  This copy of the Magna Carta, written in 1297, will eventually become part of a new permanent exhibit at the National Archives, documenting the expansion of human rights … [ Read all ]

Grog and Flog

Written on: July 18, 2011 | 1 Comment

The coincidence of reading James E. Valle’s Rocks and Shoals:  Order and Discipline in the Old Navy, 1800-1861 and the opening of the America Eats Tavern which is serving grog for the first time is the inspiration for this post.  Rocks and Shoals documents punishments in the form of flogging meted out for such infractions as drunkenness, fighting, disobedience, skulking, theft, sleeping on watch, etc.  These charges and punishments are well documented in quarterly reports housed at the National Archives.

Quarterly Report of Persons Punished on board the U.S. Frigate United States, November 18, 1847-February 18, 1848
Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives and Records Administration

Of particular interest to me was “doubling the grog tub” which resulted in 12 lashes!  Grog comes to us from the Royal Navy, introduced by British Vice Admiral Edward Vernon in 1740.  Vernon’s nickname, “Old Grog,” came from the grogram cloth coat he wore.  The drink was rum based, watered down with beer and/or water.  Citrus juice was added to cut the bad taste of the water and, unknowingly, addressed the scurvy problem aboard ships at that time.  The Continental Navy and then the U.S. Navy also served grog—twice a day—until September 1862 when the practice was discontinued.  And that was many years before my tour of duty, alas!  So…”doubling the grog tub” or getting back in … [ Read all ]

What’s Cooking?

Written on: June 10, 2011 | 6 Comments

As someone who likes to cook and collects cookbooks for inspiration, I am high on the latest exhibit to open here at the National Archives.

The Archivist at the exhibit preview

AOTUS welcomes the press at the “What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam?” exhibit preview at the National Archives.

“What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam?” takes a look at the Government’s role in food, a story told from the records in our custody.  It is a story at times funny, at times scary, and always informative.  There are photos and recipes from the White House kitchens—President Johnson’s Pedernales River Chili, President Kennedy’s New England Fish Chowder, and even Queen Elizabeth II’s scone recipe, a favorite of President Eisenhower’s.  It tells the story of Frank Meyer (the Meyer lemon Meyer!) who trekked throughout Asia in the early 1900s looking for plant specimens and seeds to bring to America.  Did you know that the first Commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Harvey Wiley, used a human “poison squad” to prove the harmful effects of chemical preservatives in food?    And it includes the food pyramid over time—did you know that butter was once a food group?!  What great timing—just last week the Department of Agriculture released the new food plate.

The exhibit opens today and for the next six months we will be doing an amazingly creative series of programs and events relating to food.  … [ Read all ]

The One Who Got Away

Written on: April 29, 2011 | 3 Comments

This week I was in Kansas City visiting two of our three facilities in the area. The limestone caves at Lenexa hold both temporary and permanent records of Federal agencies in Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska including the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Veterans Affairs. In addition, the growing collection of records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs is housed there. An amazingly creative use of naturally climate controlled space to protect the Nation’s history.

Among the many archival records at the Central Plains Region facility in downtown Kansas City are the inmate case files of the United States Penitentiary—Leavenworth. 68,937 files covering July 1895 when the prison opened through 1952 are now open for research and document some of the most notorious federal prisoners in history. The files include Robert Stroud–aka the “Birdman of Alcatraz,” George “Machine Gun” Kelly, boxer Jack Johnson, labor leader “Big Bill” Haywood, gambler Nicky Aronstein, and polar explorer Dr. Frederick Cook. And some not so notorious prisoners including Lizzie Cardish, a 15 year old convicted of arson in Wisconsin; Lothar Witzke a German spy convicted of the Black Tom Island explosion of 1916 in New York Harbor which damaged the Statue of Liberty; and Samuel Caldwell, who we believe was the first Leavenworth prisoner to be convicted of violating the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937!… [ Read all ]

Spies and Secret Writing

Written on: April 22, 2011 | 0 Comments

Iodite of potassium, sulphate of iron, nitrate of silver, rice starch, ferro cyanite of potassium, and even lemon juice. These are some of the ingredients necessary to reproduce the secret writing techniques described in the six documents declassified by the CIA last week as part of the work of the National Declassification Center (NDC). The Center was established within the National Archives at the direction of the President in late 2009 with the mandate to review more than 400 million pages of classified records by the end of December 2013.

The job is difficult and complex because a single document can contain classified information drawn from several agencies, and each one of these agencies may have its own standards for classifying and declassifying documents. The process has benefited from having representatives of the agencies at our facility in College Park, Maryland, so these referrals and decisions can be made quickly.

The review process has very much been driven by user demand. The prioritization of records to be reviewed was established after public meetings and online review by the user community. The results are posted on the NDC website.

So far the news is good. More than 84 million pages have passed the quality review process, the first step. Of the 14.5 million pages which have been fully reviewed, 91% were declassified and made available … [ Read all ]

Mens et Manus: Reaching for the Future

Written on: April 15, 2011 | 1 Comment

On Sunday, I was honored to provide the keynote address for the Next Century Convocation at MIT, the institution which launched my career and shaped my worldview. I shared my thoughts on MIT’s striking founding vision and how pervasive its influence has been over the last 150 years, even in unexpected places.


MIT’s motto is “mens et manus”, Latin for “mind and hand.”  It embodies the educational philosophy of William Barton Rogers and the founders of MIT. Their original proposal to create MIT, Objects and Plan of an Institute of Technology, addresses itself to “…manufacturers, merchants, mechanics, agriculturists, and other friends of enlightened industry in the Commonwealth.”

So where did William Barton Rogers get his inspiration?

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote “A man is known by the books he reads…”  Rogers was a geologist by training but a look at his personal library gives one a sense of the range of his knowledge, interests, and attitudes toward the approach to education outlined in the Objects and Plan.

In 1975, when the MIT Alumni Association was celebrating its Centennial, a colleague and I had the opportunity to prepare an exhibit based on our yearlong effort to identify and reassemble the founder’s original library.  Working from a crude inventory in his own handwriting and with a lot of time at the shelves of all of the MIT Libraries, … [ Read all ]

Understanding Watergate

Written on: April 8, 2011 | 1 Comment

A test of a nation’s commitment to transparency and self-government comes in how it explains to succeeding generations the more difficult or controversial moments of the past.

Watergate is one such moment in our nation’s history — and a topic that is now more fully explored at the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.

Last week, I attended the opening of the Watergate Gallery at the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California. The new permanent exhibit chronicles the events beginning in June 1971, with the leak of the Pentagon Papers and the formation of a clandestine White House group known as the Plumbers, and ends with former President Richard Nixon’s public explanations of Watergate after he left office. The exhibit is designed to help visitors make sense of the web of personalities as well as the actions and intentions at the heart of the Watergate scandal.


A portion of the new Watergate Gallery at the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum

The Nixon Library arguably holds the fullest record of any Presidential administration in history with approximately 4,000 broadcast videos, 4,500 audio records, 30,000 gifts, 300,000 photographs, 2 million feet of film, 46 million pages of documents, and 3,700 hours of presidential conversations known as the “White House Tapes.”

The new exhibit on Watergate uses documents and records from Presidential, Congressional, and Special Prosecutor’s records as well … [ Read all ]

How to be a “Smooth Criminal”

Written on: April 1, 2011 | 3 Comments

You may think that the National Archives is an unlikely place to learn the secrets of Michael Jackson’s dance moves — but you’re wrong!

Within Record Group 241, Records of the Patent and Trademark Office, patent 5,255,452 gives us the secrets behind one move in particular — Michael’s “lean” as done in the music video, “Smooth Criminal.” *


On October 26, 1993, Michael Jackson was granted his patent for a “method and means for creating anti-gravity illusion.” The application abstract describes the patent as:

“A system for allowing the shoe wearer to lean forwardly beyond his center of gravity by virtue of wearing a specially designed pair of shoes which will engage with a hitch member movably projectable through a stage surface. The shoes have a specially designed heel slot which can be detachably engaged with the hitch member by simply sliding the shoe wearer’s foot forward, thereby engaging with the hitch member.”

Figure 6 (above) and Figure 7 and 1 (both below) are drawings from Michael Jackson’s patent application. The images below shows the slot on the heel of the shoe, as well as the straps used to secure the ankle for Michael’s “lean” dance move.


At the National Archives, researchers can explore patent drawings and patent applications online and in person at our College Park, MD facility.

Another good source of information … [ Read all ]

Interview with Peter Wood, Author of Near Andersonville: Winslow Homer’s Civil War

Written on: March 4, 2011 | 0 Comments

A couple of weeks ago, I had the chance to sit down with Peter Wood, professor of history, emeritus, at Duke University to talk with him about his recent book, Near Andersonville: Winslow Homer’s Civil War. The book tells the story of Winslow Homer’s remarkable Civil War-era painting, Near Andersonville.

In the following video, Peter describes how the painting came to be in the private collection of the family of a teacher, Sarah Kellogg, who lived on the Sea Islands in South Carolina and taught liberated slaves during the Civil War.

Peter relied on the records of the National Archives to tell the story of Near Andersonville.  At the end of the interview above, he describes the Union Troops’ failed attempt to liberate the prisoners of Andersonville. The captured soldiers are pictured in the painting. In the slideshow below, you will find the July 26, 1864 letter from General Stoneman to General Sherman requesting permission to try to release the prisoners.  He says, “Now is the time to do it before the Rebel Army falls back and covers that country – and I have every inducement to try it.”

A portion of the July 26, 1864 letter from General Stoneman to General Sherman

Also from the National Archives, is the pension application from Winslow Homer’s brother, Arthur Homer, indicating that he had served on … [ Read all ]

Developing a Hockey Mindset

Written on: February 25, 2011 | 1 Comment

Two weeks ago, the San Jose Sharks came to visit the National Archives for a behind-the-scenes tour on their day off in Washington before playing the Capitals. As professional athletes go, they had plenty of interest in our records — especially the declassified 1930′s contingency plan to invade Canada!

As you may know from a previous blog post of mine, one of my favorite quotes is from Wayne Gretzky:

“I skate to where the puck is going to be,

not where it has been.”

Now, more than ever, adapting this mindset will help us transform the National Archives. This approach will help us innovate in order to address the changing needs of our customers — the Federal agencies, White House, and Congress we serve as well as the American public.

The way we do our work today was envisioned in the earlier part of the 20th century when the format of choice was paper. In order for us to fulfill our mission in the 21st century, we need to reexamine our theories and practices to take advantage of the tools enabled by this technological age. We need to develop the skill sets that will move us beyond our current capabilities, as we continue our basic job of collecting, protecting, and providing access to the records of the Government.

This is an exciting time to work … [ Read all ]