Cool Jobs: NARA’s Nicholson preserves our most important documents

Imagine actually touching the the U.S. Constitution, or the Declaration of Independence.

Catherine “Kitty” Nicholson is Supervisory Conservator in the Document Conservation Laboratory at the National Archives and Records Administration.

She is part of Federal News Radio’s week-long special series, Cool Jobs in Government.

She has worked directly on the conservation and preservation of several famous American documents, including the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.

In addition, she worked with the producers of National Treasure and National Treasure: Book of Secrets, starring Nicholas Cage, during film development.

She explains that she doesn’t just deal with incredibly famous documents, but those that pertain to the average citizen, as well.

“What we do . . . is hands-on treatment to make historic documents that document the history of our country last as long as possible. They run the gamut from what seem to be very mundane records — but may pertain to important people, or even to you and me and our relatives — up to and including the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. We have an immense quantity of records we’re responsible for preserving and, if needed, providing hands-on conservation treatment.”

Many of the documents, especially the more famous ones, are hermetically sealed in what NARA calls “encasements”, which are filled with inert gases.

Papers like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution have been displayed this way, virtually untouched, since they came to the Archives in the 1950s.

“But, there was a time in the late 1990s when we knew we would have to close the rotunda for rennovation, and we realized that was our golden moment. We felt that the 1950s encasements had become outdated and there were new technologies, and so we did open them. I’m one of just a handful of people who can say they’ve actually touched those documents, because we did conservation treatment.”

And she actually got to touch them with her hands. She explained that wearing gloves often impedes the grip of whomever is holding such delicate parchments and using bare hands can sometimes work better — after a thorough washing, of course.

“It was unbelivable. I have to say, you know, I started out of graduate school working for the the National Archives as a fairly young, new conservator, and I never dreamed that I would have this responsibility or this honor. It was just mindblowing when it became clear that we would have the opportunity and we would have a small team that would work on them. That’s one of the wonderful things about working for the federal government — you don’t know what opportunities may lie ahead.”

As for the film National Treasure, Nicholson says many at NARA like to think Diane Kruger’s character as one of them:

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