2017 Virtual Genealogy Fair: A is for Archives, B is for Burn File


>>Thank you. Welcome back. This is session
number 4 of the 2017 Virtual Genealogy Fair. It is entitled, A is for Archives, B is for
Burn File: Accessing Burned Records at the National Archives at St. Louis. Our speaker
is Ashley Cox, within the presentation Ashley will talk about the 1973 fire at the National
Personnel Records Center at St. Louis and discuss which file were burned and how their
designation changed from non-archival to archival making all burn files available for research
relatively soon. This talk has exciting information for both beginners and experienced researchers
she is a preservation specialist who works for the National Archives in St. Louis, Missouri.
I turn the broadcast over to Ashley Cox.>>I joined the preservation unit in December
of 2016. I was previously the conservation librarian at the University of Pittsburgh
for a grant project stabilizing large coal field mine maps. I moved from one unique set of
documents to another. I knew my experience with the dirty and fragile ‑‑ fragile maps
would translate well to our work here but I was not prepared for the sheer amount of requests that our technicians deal with
an a daily basis, next slide. Next slide. There we go. The following presentation is
broken into three parts talking about the 1973 fire and aftermath. Requests and the
archival research room and finally the preservation treatment process including our innovative
process content recovery scanning leaving time for questions at the end. Next slide.
In the early hours of July 12, 1973 a fire erupted at the national personnel center in
Overland Missouri in St. Louis county, just outside the city of St. Louis the fire raged four
days, and a total of 42 fire districts participated in the quelling of the fire. The fight was
complicated by overwhelming flames driving the men from entering the building and continuing
water pressure problems. Over the coming weeks and months the record center and other government
agencies would work together to salvage records and identify any information they could to
supplement the lost records, next slide. You can see the heat of the fire by the warped
steel shelving here surviving records were frequently protected by the build of up standing water as well as ash from the outer records. Next slide. The amount of water used to fight the blaze
combined with the hot and humid St. Louis summer created a perfect environment for mold
growth. (inaudible) was used to mitigate the situation somewhat. Records were collected,
sorted as best as possible and stored in egg crates almost 30,000 of them. Records were
vacuum dried in a chamber at the McDonnell Douglas Aircraft Corporation that had originally been constructed to simulate space conditions. After the test runs additional chambers were used at two different facilities. The technique was successful but
because of experimental nature during the first run the documents were slightly over
dried and increasing the brittleness of the paper. Next slide.
So, what is a B file, similar to Sesame Street, the government loves talking about letters,
B is for burn file. Our computer inventory system or registry assigns file numbers with
a letter prefix these prefix letters are an easy way to reference an entire record group. A new registry was created to organize the damaged files and thus the B files were born. You can see
the branches most affected as well as personnel and periods affected in the chart on the slide.
And estimated losses. Approximately 6.5 million survived and while that may seem like
a lot of records when compared to the percentages of records lost it’s clear how much of your
history was damaged that day. Click please. Within these it can be hit or miss what survived
personal example my great grandfather’s record no longer exists while my grandfather’s does
that’s with the same last name. Next slide. So, here is your typical B file, burned, brittle
and distorted with broken fragments a record in this condition is very difficult to use
for research and can be damaged with repeated handling if not stabilized. What if your record
was completely destroyed? Next file. That brings us to the other registry created from
the fire. NARA worked within its on holdings and in cooperation with other agencies in some cases through donations from
citizens to help create the R files or reconstructed files. R files are typically thin with copies
of older documents or contain modern correspondence about the Veterans. Next slide, please. Now
that we have covered the background information let’s talk about using these records for research.
This is a typical journey of a record destined to go to our onsite archival research room.
Request, search, record review, archival determination, treatment, the archivist and finally you.
Don’t worry about understanding the somewhat confusing terms I will cover each step. Next
slide. So, how to request. Is the government loves
using letters and acronyms there is one thing it loves even more click please. Forms! Next
slide. You can request by mail or online using SF180
or online via eVet recs, this creates customized order form which ‑‑ you may use this
system if you are the military Veteran or the next of kin of a deceased or former member
of the military. And you can have a definition of that online on our website. For archival
OMPFs, you can write you can visit us in person. With the fire damaged fixed or removed the
(inaudible) was used the federal center located in Spanish Lake was dedicated in 2011 is delightfully
fire free. Next page, please. But there is still forms. When E‑mailing make sure to
give as much information as possible especially with common names so for my great grandfather
and grandfather there is not a whole lot of them in the building if I look for my father’s
record there are literally thousands of Cox’s. When you arrive you have a short orientation
process that explains the in’s and out’s and you get a super cool research identification
card. Next slide planning ahead. Why are appointments so important? Well, if you are a walk in with
no previous appointment they try to get the records to you within two hours but there
is a limitation on the amount of records that you can request. Additionally, if your research
falls in the fire affected records we need to find out if it still exists if it’s archival
if it’s not you have to be the Veteran or the next of kin. And what treatment will need
from your department. Next slide. Once the records you need are identified, it is time
to get them from storage. We have a total of 15 bays each three stories tall the first
floor is double it’s essentially four stories worth of records. The B files are isolated
into two bays with designated entrance and exit to minimize any contamination of the
facility below temperature 50 degrees as well as relative hue mid tee keep mold dormant.
The files are pulled and delivered to our lab located at the entrance to the base. Next
slide, please. Next comes record review as we refer to it as mold I.D. record review
is the process of us identifying the type of requests and whether the amount of mold
debris or any damage requires us to treat the record. Some records can be handled by
specially trained staff outside of our department. All research room requests are treated by
the preservation staff. From October 2016 to April 2017. 29,028 records daily, average
of 207 went through record review 1,234 of those had to be treated by a preservation
tech next for access issues. Once we determine what level of treatment the record needs to
receive ‑‑ next slide, please. We send it to our research room colleagues for archival
determination. In 1999 then archivist of the United States John Carlin announced that
the Veteran records would become permanent in his speech on October 20th to the House
of Representatives, subcommittee on government management, information and technology on
the committee of government reform, he said: Because of the great value of these records,
to our history as well as to individual Veterans they will be accessioned permanently into
NARA’s holdings because of the huge volume they require a new security. The poor condition
of many of these records requires how we institute immediate comprehensive programmer to the
preservation. Records become archival 62 years after separation from the military. This can
be tricky in some cases because many service members join ‑‑ reserve units setting
back archival dates. My grandfather I mentioned earlier was discharged in September of 1957.
He has previously used our eVet rec system to request the 214 in 2019 myself or any of
my cousins could request to see his record for our own genealogy research. Archival records
are then returned to the lab for treatment. Researchers are alerted if their requested
records are not yet archival. Next slide, please. 
So, let’s take a brief moment to discuss how we track records through this process. AIC
the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works is the national
membership organization for conservation professionals in the United States. It has more than 3500
conservators, cultural heritages and institutions dedicated to strengthen our ability to care
for the heritage. The AIC Code of Ethics outlines responsibilities and rules that professionals
should follow. Items I and VII deal with the principal of documentation. With billions
of records located at the NPRC and 44,547 records reviewed and 1,468 inputted through
preservation, in fiscal year 16, documentation is important not only for knowing where the
record is at in lab but the treatments performed. Next slide, please. CMRS or case management
reporting system is used center‑wide it tracks request dates if the record has been
searched and pulled where it is in the building is located. Some requester info like the type
of request and what staff person is in charge of the record. It also helps create the search
sheets with the record location in the building with several football fields worth of storage
that’s pretty important. Next slide, please. The treatment tracking database is our department’s
internal tracking system. We can track the main info of the record as well as location
in our lab. Eventually we hope to have this integrated into CMRS to increase transparency
to others in the building. Next slide, please. Next is our treatment tracking log. Which
helped generated by our database. The tracking log is a standardized way to cap you are too
the treatment info across the hundreds of records we treat a month and the multiple
staff members that can work on the same record. Next slide, please. 
Once checked into preservation and paired with the treatment log the record goes into
our first treatment queue. Surface cleaning. Next slide, please.
While the solution was used to reduce mold growth many records still became moldy. When
you think of mold you might think of the fluffy green stuff on Tupperware sitting in the room
or dreaded black mold. It comes in a variety of textures and a variety of colors too including
green white black even purple and bright pink surface cleaning as ‑‑ attempts to remediate
the growth. It’s impossible to remove or kill mold spores but remediation tries to reduce active
mold build up as much as possible. Additionally during surface cleaning we remove staples debris
excess ash and any rusted fasteners. We get quite a pile of staples and paper clips by the end of the day. Preservation and conservation uses a wide range of tools many adapted from their original use. The Schuco‑Vac, designed for the medical field it was originally an aspiration and suction device it
allows removal of mold residue from the paper. We have a variety of attachments the most
heavily used is the brush it lifts the mold sucked into the filtration system, the canister is filled with a water and envirocide mix
mix that’s a medical grade disinfectant that kills a lot of stuff. Frequently used tools include the use sponges called dry cleaning sponges or chemical sponges a vulcanized rubber that leaves no cleaners or residues. They can be cut down to size and the debris is trapped on the outer layer
of the sponge they can be trimmed or used until they essentially disappear. We have
a variety of brushes in different sizes and bristle stiffness which help loosen and brush away mold and debris. Bone folders which are made of animal bone or horn or we also have nonstick Teflon versions that smooth
out creases and folds. The Holbein offset spatula separates and lifts pages, the lifter also made of nonstick
Teflon, is a favorite tool, as its smooth beveled surface can glide between more delicate and stuck pages than the Holbein
can. Only one size pictured here, we have many micro spatulas. These workhorses can help separate pages, support pages as they are turned over. They can remove vast variety of fasteners that we encounter.
Next slide. B file, triage room and decontamination lab decon has the most activity with records before and during remediation. Average mold levels are similar to those of outdoors but the types are different aspergilus accounts for most of the mold activity. We know this because we conduct
air quality tests. Our most recent test was March of this year. You never become immune
to mold your sensitivity only increases over time because we are handling the records while
surface cleaning can increase mold spores in a small area we wear PPE, personal protective
equipment. Staff throughout the building are given access to PPE including gloves, smocks,
aprons, sleeve covers hairnets, shoe covers and masks, we offer preservation staff fit testing for half mask respirators. and have a variety of disposable respirators. Air scrubbers and purifiers clean the air in areas of high B files use. We have fume hoods in our decontamination room and wet lab. Many records
dried into a distorted twisted mess post fire. During the surface cleaning stage technicians
use a variety of micro spatulas and lifters to separate as many pages as possible once
clean they are put into the humidification cue. While taking patience and skill records
must be cleaned before undergoing the humidification process though only in the dome a short while we don’t want to risk mold reactivating we want to reduce the amount of spores as possible. While currently 80% of the work flow focuses on the treatment requested B files we inspect and repair records
that have not been affected by mold. Whether they have been requested from other record
groups or for large scale processes like we are currently humidifying a large one
of JAG records or during processing and re‑housing the mold is enacted the spore count greatly
decreased we want to. We want to minimize the interaction of B files with these other records. We are constantly looking for learning new methods to increase our speed and efficiency without sacrficing proper handling of the records. We increased the treatment
through the use of two humidity domes shown on this slide and previous slide. We used to use a process called tray humidification the domes must be closely monitored, but humidification takes only 25 minutes,
depending on the atmosphere in lab and quality of the paper. Next slide. This is the same
record before and after humidification dubbed the football, it was the subject of one of our most shared Facebook post. We encounter records with this level of distortion, humidification helps make the information accessible and decreasing the physical size of the record as we know space is at a continuous
premium, it’s no different here. This record pages mended and sleeved in support of polyester
will fit into permanent storage with no damage to itself or other surrounding records. Next
slide. Along with heavy distortion we frequently encounter torn, fragmented records this
photo comes from a training session earlier this year where the conservators from the
DC area lab came to train us on new mending methods and also paste creation. Next slide.
Another instance of time efficiency, we only mend records where the pieces are completely
detached or where the tear impedes the ability to read. Shorter tears are put in polyester
sleeves. It creates a static charge, which helps keep them in place. Pieces are attached and reattached using conservation grade adhesive and Japanese tissue. The conservation field uses this long fiber paper made about the Cozo plant, because it is thin and strong with no lignan, which is a component found in wood pup based paper it turns acidic and brittle.
While the tissue is constant the form adhesion changes the preservation lab we do three main type of mending the most used is tissue with wheat starch paste, the paste is made each work it becomes a translucent
tacky paste. The photo shows the paste being strained through a horse hair strainer. This helps
remove lumps and create consistently textured paste. We use remoisten-able and heat set tissue, they have adhesive pre-applied, re‑moistened tissue also uses wheat starch paste but it is first diluted with another compound. The mixture is applied
and allowed to dry it can be re‑moistened with water at the time of use. Heat set tissue
has acrylic that activates. These tissues can be bought or made in‑house. The moistened mend
strips are ideally applied to the back of the document, if there is information on both sides we choose the side where we choose the side where the information is least affected. The page may be sleeved and polyester depending on the fragility of the paper. It shows where
the entire right corner is attached using Japanese tissue and wheat starched paste.
Starting in October 2015, the lab began a process to digitize badly burned records that
previously would have been considered completely inaccessible. Utilizing infrared photography,
which has been around on film since the 30’s and 50’s, this is done digitally. Due to volume and deadlines we needed a reliable and repeatable method. Each page would have had to have been painstakingly
manipulated. The now system allows pages to be scanned, edited less than one minute per
page. Next slide, please. How does it work? There are different spectral properties between paper and the various inks the absorption and reflection of these light waves creates contrast between the information and
the page that we cannot see with our own eyes. Next slide, please. 
What is a good candidate for content recovery scanning? This photo is perfect candidate
for it. The information cannot be revealed using a normal copier. They are printed or
type inks in it which helps the way the light bounces off of the two. There needs to be
a high amount of dark brown to black charring into areas information so we can’t actually see any
information there with our own eyes. And one of the most important things is that it’s
brittle and the fragmented charring would be damaged if we even sleeved if we repeatedly
handled that record. Next slide, please. Here is our set up using our infrared camera, snapshot
of our capture 1 software and strobe light. The placement of the strobe lights is important
many of these pages have to be supported in Mylar sleeves poor placement or timing of the strobe would create glare. The initial image of the infrared lens is bright magenta that’s how not how deliver it to you. Here are the results. You can see the dramatic difference in the amount of accessible information.
And we have applied additional digital filter to create easy on the eyes grayscale versus
bright pink as of this month we used content recovery scanning on 300 records that would
have been inaccessible and unusable. Due to the records poor condition they are not physically accessible for researchers. If requested, the digital copy is delivered helping to keep these fragile record from being repeatedly handled and damaged.
Next slide. Finally, each record has a final inspection by a preservation specialist before
it is picked up by our archivist. Next slide. After being utilized in the research room,
it comes back to us in B files we reconsolidate the Veterans records sometimes they may have
multiple B or R files they are treated all at the same time so they can be bind into
one S file or safeguarded file. This creates a more efficient search for any future request.
Next slide. If you want to learn more about conservation, whether here at NARA, please
visit our web page. We have a Facebook and Instagram that one of our technicians is on
the committee for. So she does a really great job. There was also the very first presentation
by Katie, one of our conservators, there is also a link to AIC’s main website. There is
a handout for this presentation with these links as well as links to the forms that I
referenced. Next slide? And so now we are ready for questions.
>>Wonderful. Thank you so much. People are just overwhelmed with the work the National
Archives has been doing. So, as we prepare for the questions, just some of the comments
I am looking at, they are saying, this is just amazing. Wow. Incredible. So, very, very
appreciative of the work that you have done.>>We have labs here and then we also have
two in DC. So, the DC area it’s not just here we do a lot of great work for all of NARA’s
collections.>>Wonderful to know that too. So, let’s dive
into these questions. Let’s see here. Someone actually says she handled separations during
The Vietnam War was required to send a copy of the DD214 to home of record county. So
shouldn’t they have been recorded in county records?
>>So, in theory, they should be. Unfortunately, not every Veteran listened to those instructions.
So, or there could have also have been fire and floods for a lot of county courthouses
the records are located in the basement, which is a main area for flooding. So, it’s possible
that those are also lost there. But that is an excellent place to go check if your record
has been affected by the fire.>>Yes. Several people have asked, you know,
would you suggest sending in another request for records due to the new technology if the
request was a long time ago?>>I suggest, yes. Especially because ‑‑
because of the salvaging process, we find what are called “inner files” or partials
within records. So, if you had a similar name or if the records are really piled up they
would be scooped up and put in a folder and dried as we treat those or do other reference
cases on them throughout the building those are pulled out and we actually have a process
where we research those to see if they have a file here if they don’t we create a file.
Sometimes they might be rather small but there is more information. But that does take a
lot of research work. So, we have a lot of partials that were continuously identifying
and creating files for.>>Okay. So a follow‑up question someone
says that they sent in a request just this summer, and got back minimal information.
So does that mean nothing else was recoverable or more might be forthcoming? Should we just
actually wait for a few months or a year before asking for information?
>>That is difficult ‑‑ that is a difficult question to answer.
>> Yeah.>> Depending on if it was in the fire related
cases. A lot of times you know, we give you everything that we can really find. At least ‑‑
we repair what we can give to you. There are instances where stuff is badly fused together
we can’t get those pages separated. Unfortunately, sometimes it’s just a minimal amount of information.
>>Okay. Thank you. I have a question here from Naval reservist would a DD214 be issued
for a Navy reservist going back to our previous discussions?
>>That would be a question for one of our archivists. Would it? Would one?
>>Yes DD214s weren’t standard until the 1950s so beforehand it would have been the separation
document issued by the Navy.>>DD214s weren’t done until the 1950’s before
that would have been a separation document issued by the Navy, thank you to our archivists
sitting in the room to answer that question for me.
>> All right. We have a lot of information. Next question someone asked about unit history,
excuse me, and they weren’t sure which building in the National Archives system had unit histories.
Might go back to one of the archivists in the room someone proposed it was in one of
the Washington, DC buildings for the unit histories.
>> Yes, that’s possible. There are also some here, the preservation department doesn’t
see those very frequently.>> One of the records for the ‑‑
>>We do have morning reports and preservation has helped with the microfilming of those.
>> (inaudible)>>It’s largely going to be A1 and A2, which
is our DC area.>> Thank you, that is helpful. Someone had
mentioned, I thought we should address about what to do a FOIA, if someone had written
as a helpful comment for those of you looking for records which may have been burned I have
success finding a lot of records accepting a FOIA to the regional Veterans Administration
office. I know ‑‑ I thought ‑‑ it might be a better way than to put in a FOIA
for the burned records there might be an easier way to access those records rather than going
all the way through the FOIA process.>> Yeah. If it’s archival, then you can ‑‑
you don’t need a FOIA for it. You just request it through the reference department.
>>Thank you so much. Going back through some of the questions we have got are about basic
how the federal government operates and how we are budgeted I suggest that we go to our
website archives.gov for those types of questions. Thank you for those. It’s always fascinating.
I am not seeing any more questions that pertain to your particular topic. Except I just want
to say, again, how incredibly grateful people are for your work. And all of the preservationists
who are bringing these records back into a condition that we can actually read, thank
you for your talk, thank you for your work.

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