NATIONAL ARCHIVES ARE TRULY A TREASURE-TROVE
AUTOR: Marylou Tousignant / THE WASHINGTON POST
WASHINGTON, D.C. — More than a million people pass by the big, bronze doors of the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C., each year, and nearly every one of them goes to see the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
America’s founding documents are, after all, the heart of the lineup of our nation’s most important treasures, which the National Archives is responsible for preserving.
There is more to the archives than old documents — although there are plenty of those (billions, in fact). Archives employees shared some of their favorite facts about the place where America’s historic paper trail begins.
Let’s start where visitors start: those doors. They’re the biggest bronze doors in the world. Each one weighs 13,000 pounds and measures 38.7 feet high, almost 10 feet wide and 11 inches thick!
The building sits atop Old Tiber Creek, an underground stream. During construction in the 1930s, more than 8,500 concrete piles were driven into the unstable soil to support the building’s weight.
Large pumps keep the foundations from flooding with creek water. Record rainfall is another matter: Bad storms flooded parts of the building last June; fortunately, no original records got wet.
Heat and moisture aren’t good for priceless papers. The National Archives facility was one of the first federal buildings in Washington to get air conditioning.
The Declaration, Constitution and Bill of Rights are kept in special cases filled with argon gas to protect them from damaging light and air. All three documents were written on parchment, which is animal skin.
Unlike in the 2004 movie National Treasure, there is no map on the back of the Declaration. But there is this penned note written upside-down: "Original Declaration of Independence, dated 4 th July 1776." (Guess Hollywood didn’t think it could build a movie around that.)
Documents big and small are kept at the archives. Among them: a canceled check for $7.2 million for the purchase of Alaska in 1867, and the Articles of Confederation, the nation’s first governing document, which was written on six sheets of parchment sewn together into a scroll more than 8 feet long. (Not surprisingly, it’s seldom taken out of its box.)
Archives staff members aren’t sure how many Abraham Lincoln signatures they have, but one can be seen on the slave-freeing Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. The Ab in Abraham is shaky. Researchers say that’s because Lincoln’s hand was tired after greeting visitors.
The National Archives is more than just the building. Although it’s two city blocks long, it ran out of storage space in the late 1960s. Today there are more than 34 archive facilities.
The one in Lee’s Summit, Missouri, was a cave! It now houses records relating to military veterans and other items. The research facility in College Park, Maryland, has electronic records and material related to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963.
The National Archives also oversees 12 presidential libraries, starting with the administration of Herbert Hoover (1929-33).