- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 4, 2002

Carroll Creitz, 93, is one of the few Americans privileged to have seen close up the precious historical documents in the U.S. National Archives known as the Charters of Freedom primarily the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
Now retired, Mr. Creitz was the chemist at the Commerce Department's National Bureau of Standards now the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), one of the government's primary technical research agencies who, in 1951, inserted helium into the original glass and metal cases holding the documents to help preserve the latter.
"The ink is just about disappeared from the Declaration, and there is a corner fallen off that had been reknitted back even before I got to help," Mr. Creitz recalls recently in a telephone interview. "It's almost impossible to read them, even when they are outside the enclosures. The best thing to do is get a reproduction because you won't see too much except to see that [a document] exists."
Whatever their physical state, the sheepskin parchments are important as symbols as much as fact. Then as now, preserving the originals is a top priority for archives officials and conservators.
New monitoring techniques in the late 1980s showed some small irregularities on the inner surface of the encasement glass that indicated deterioration of the glass. The documents were not in danger, but it was thought that the glass eventually would turn opaque and make the words even more difficult to read.
Four years ago, an interdisciplinary project was begun using the latest technology to design and fabricate new encasements that involved scientists and engineers from NIST as well as help from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Just over two weeks ago, NIST delivered the last of the cases to the National Archives Building at Seventh Street and Constitution Avenue NW, which, apart from its facilities for researchers, is closed while undergoing major renovation.
Delivery of seven cases plus two spares was done well ahead of completion of the building's renovation, but the public will not see them until Constitution Day, Sept. 17, 2003. Because of its significance, the Declaration will be the last one to be put into its new cover, says Richard Rohrer, the mechanical engineer who is project manager for NIST.

The biggest challenge, says Mr. Rohrer, was "making decisions on what kind of detail and materials to be used." NIST worked throughout with three different branches of the archives.
One such decision was the choice of gold-plated titanium for the frame and body of each case. "Titanium is good because it is both strong and light and also it was good from a cost standpoint because it was free," he says. Titanium Industries in New Jersey donated the material, which Mr. Rohrer values at $6,000 to $7,000 for each case, "and a total of $150,000 in labor and materials."
"It's very impressive to look at [the documents]. You just start thinking about the history of what they represent," says Richard Judson of the archives' Space and Security Division in College Park, Mr. Rohrer's counterpart in the re-encasement project.
One change that visitors will notice will be elimination of what Mr. Judson calls a "greenish-yellowish tint" on the old cases. "New fiber optic lighting on the display will eliminate distortion," he says.
"There are no role models for these," he says, noting that another change making sure the protective glass does not touch the document represents a "different philosophy of conservation."
"They used helium back then, and we use argon, which is also inert, but helium has a smaller molecule so it tends to leak out easier," he says. "Helium was in abundant supply back in the '40s and '50s in a clean, pure state, but now we have access to pure argon gas through a gas supplier company."
The presence of either helium or argon prevents oxygen from getting inside the cases and, thus indirectly, gas acts as a preservative. Being inert, helium does not allow any chemical reaction to occur in the parchment especially bacterial action that would cause mold, Mr. Rohrer adds.
Being the stretched preserved skin of an animal, parchment is sensitive to moisture, and different parts of the same skin may contract or expand, causing variations in the surface, so humidity inside the case has to be carefully controlled and monitored.
Charles Tilford, a retired NIST scientist, made most of the decisions about what gas should be used to fill the case interior. He also was the one responsible for the scheme to extract the helium from the 1950s model. Mr. Tilford is a physicist by training and was a longtime employee with a specialty in pressure management and high vacuum technology.
One of the challenges was opening the old cases in a safe manner to remove the documents before transferral to the new cases. The solution was ingenuity itself: inventing a tool, a hook-shaped blade "similar to an old can opener to cut through the old lead seal," Mr. Judson says.
The old cases were soldered shut and could not be opened without breaking the seal, and the only ways to break the seal were either by the use of heat to soften the lead or to cut directly through the lead ribbon with a sharp tool that could be inserted into the lead, as the National Archives Web site explains the procedure.
The advantage of the new design is to allow conservators to open and reseal the cases if it proves necessary to examine the documents or modify monitoring and preservation components.

Archives conservators, of course, have seen the documents in an unprotected state they are kept in a vault with a temperature of 68 degrees and moved carefully by gloved hands as has NIST's Michael McGlauflin, the chief technician who tightens the bolts for a final seal on each case.
"I'm the one who actually closes it at the end," he says. "It's just so nice. [The documents] are beautiful, and hard to describe. It's an emotional thing. It really is. It's the history and the craftsmanship. You can see pencil lines very faintly, so when they actually did the writing they had straight lines.
"The Constitution and the Bill of Rights are in good shape," he says.
The pages being preserved are the Constitution's four pages, the transmittal or cover page to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights which, being of a larger size, needs a case with larger dimensions and the Declaration of Independence.
The transmittal page, the cover letter sent to Congress by delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, was the one selected for the first transfer into the new encasement. When it was opened after preliminary testing, it was the first time in 50 years that anyone had touched any of the parchment sheets.
Mr. McGlauflin, involved since the project's beginning, says it was a core group that made a manufacturing model 2 years ago "doing technology we never had done before." The final action, however, he describes as "like tightening bolts on a car engine. You follow a certain procedure to make it work properly. The seal itself is made of a springy alloy that puts up with a lot of stress. Even so, what they did 50 years ago was amazing for the time."
The entire project, which has been documented on film from start to finish, began with a $800,000 grant from the Pew Charitable Trust to build a prototype case. Congress later appropriated $4 million to cover the cost of fabrication, which included experimenting with the old encasements as well as construction of new laboratories in which to do the work.
When finally ready for display to the public, the documents will be in a wholly redesigned rotunda of the archives that will permit easier access and viewing angles for children and people in wheelchairs. New and expanded exhibit areas are planned, too.
Citizens hungering for exposure to the Charters of Freedom at least a living version, performed by costumed figures are invited to witness the archives' traditional Fourth of July recital of the Declaration of Independence today at 2 p.m. in the Great Hall of Union Station. The public is welcome.
Information about the Charters of Freedom and their preservation may be found online at www.archives.gov/exhibit_ hall/charters_of_freedom/charters_of_freedom.html and at www.nist.gov/public_affairs/Charter/charters_of_freedom_project.htm.

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