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Release: Aug. 16, 1999

Charters of Freedom to be re-encased using UI-made paper

IOWA CITY– The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has selected the University of Iowa Center for the Book to produce a special quality paper that will help preserve the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.

The three documents, called the "Charters of Freedom" by the National Archives, are in good condition, but the bronze and glass case through which the public has viewed them since 1952, has developed crystals, droplets and small surface fractures which indicate glass deterioration. Scientists and conservators inspecting the cases have found that the crystals and droplets and other imperfections are potentially harmful to the original documents that now touch the glass. NARA has developed new encasements that will protect the documents which are displayed daily at the National Archives Rotunda in Washington, D.C.

The 100 handmade sheets of cotton paper, which measure 36 inches square, are being produced at the UICB Paper Research and Production Facility, located at the UI's Oakdale Research Park. The UI-made paper will be placed under the original documents to help stabilize the humidity in the cases and provide an acid-free surface for the documents to rest on. A staff and student team of paper production specialists is crafting the paper from textile grade cotton. Through a series of steps, it is cooked, washed, beaten and formed to make the finished product: sheets of strong, flat, pure white cellulose paper.

The paper, some of which was sent to NARA for testing last June, is made from a combination of traditional papermaking techniques and contemporary technology. The processes will result in a paper that is free of harsh chemical treatments but characterized by a high degree of cellulose purity. This approach will give the paper a longevity conservators say is necessary for protecting the Charters that profess the country's founding ideals.

"NARA asked us to make the paper for a number of reasons," says Tim Barrett, director of the UI Center for the Book. At the Center's Research and Production Paper Facility, we have a long history of making papers specially designed for conservation applications like this.

"We came up with a plan for making a very white paper without the use of any chemical bleaching. We felt our chosen approach was the best one for this project and NARA agreed," Barrett says.

Lynn Amlie, production facility shop manager, who has an extensive knowledge of historical and contemporary papermaking techniques, is helping direct the paper's production. Amlie says the significance of the project is not missed on any of those involved.

"Although many people have little awareness of the need for high-quality handmade paper, even the layperson recognizes the importance of these documents to society. This project challenges us to utilize our knowledge of paper and its characteristics to design and produce an appropriate end product that will help protect these valuable documents," Amlie says.

The new case design, which has a frame structure milled out of solid titanium, resembles a polished silver picture frame. The new cases will be filled with argon gas, replacing the old system of helium gas, and will be better designed to control the humidity levels that are very important to the stability of parchment documents.

When the National Archives' $4.8-million project concludes in 2003, the public will be able to view all four pages of the Constitution, in addition to the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. One of the pages of the Constitution will be displayed in the new prototype encasement, possibly on July 4, 2000, for display in the Rotunda.

The University of Iowa Center for the Book supports study and research on the physical book, and the role of the book in society, past, present and future.