An Archivist Sneezes on a Priceless Document. Then What?

What, exactly, does history lose when an archive-worthy text is destroyed?

Black-and-white image of a pair of hands on top of a manuscript
Luis Davilla / Cover / Getty

A year and a half ago, I found myself in an archive room at the London School of Economics, staring at 150-year-old documents complete with swirly handwriting and a red-wax seal. My mind flicked back to a few weeks earlier, when I’d gotten one of my occasional nosebleeds, and I had a random yet horrifying thought: What if my nose starts bleeding on one of these irreplaceable pages? What would happen if I ruined them? I was doing research for a book I was writing about the first women physicians. Examining personal letters and other original records—holding speeches, notes, and letters handwritten by the women I was writing about—helped answer many of the questions I had but also sparked a new one: What, exactly, does history lose when an archive-worthy text is destroyed?

I had the chance to discuss my fears at my next research stop, the Centre for Research Collections at the University of Edinburgh’s main library. When a smoke alarm interrupted my silent, solitary scholarship, another researcher invited me to her office for a cup of tea. The alarm got us talking about archival damage, and when I shared my nosebleed anxieties, she told me that a friend of hers had once sneezed on an illuminated manuscript. As the friend instinctively began wiping, the ink smudged. The more they wiped, the worse it got; the scene was practically the same nightmare that had been depicted on the old British TV show Mr. Bean.

All public archives, like the ones I visited in late 2019, before the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, must balance the responsibility of making collections accessible while also protecting them. “There are documents that become almost sacred,” Elizabeth Yale, an author and a history lecturer at the University of Iowa, told me. “If you think about the copy of the Declaration of Independence on display at the National Archives, the physical document itself carries so much weight and meaning that it has to be treated differently.”

When I asked an online group of archivists for horror stories, members told tales of researchers attempting to slide 18th-century parchment through the document feeder of a photocopier; of museum artifacts getting damaged by the blood of a doe that crashed through the window; of a scrapbook leaking glitter on important texts. One writer said that in college she watched her professor accidentally rip a medieval palimpsest. Some archivists cited the damage done to centuries-old documents by outdated cataloging or preservation methods: lamination, tape, ink stamps, ballpoint-pen markings to denote library ownership. “When I was processing the Susan Wright papers on the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom for the Leather Archives in Chicago, I gave myself a bad paper cut and bled on one of the pages,” the writer Jessica DiMaio said. “I was just an intern, and it was an ‘Oh shit!’ moment.”

Of course, many important texts have seen worse: fires, floods, thefts, volcanic ash. Yale explained how politically inconvenient papers purged from libraries and Catholic monasteries in the 16th and 17th centuries got reused as beer-keg or musket stoppers, pie-pan liners, and parcel wrapping. Having lost so much knowledge to authoritarian acts of destruction makes preserving what has been collected all the more crucial. “All of the labor and all of the care that goes into maintaining collections, keeping them in order, making sure the materials are findable, creating plans for emergencies ... This is work that has to be sustained over generations of archivists and librarians,” Yale told me.

In other words: “Documents don’t just conserve themselves.”

Curious to learn more about what happens to damaged archival materials, I arranged a tour of the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts back home in Philadelphia, in February 2020. I didn’t know at the time that it would be my last in-person reporting trip before much of the U.S. shut down. Dyani Feige, the director of preservation services at CCAHA, said of the center’s work: “Preservation is really the underpinning of collections. We would not have collections without preservation.”

The tour greatly eased my fears about inflicting accidental damage when handling primary documents. In a space that’s part artist’s workshop, part science lab, conservators work magic, performing feats of restoration I never imagined possible. I watched as a paper conservator submerged an Auguste Rodin watercolor in a bath of deionized water to undo the darkening the paper had experienced from light exposure. At another table, several 1920s panoramic photos of rodeo performers sat waiting to have enormous longwise tears painstakingly repaired. Coiled for storage, the photos had grown brittle and tore when unrolled. In front of another conservator was a large abstract painting, thick and impossibly black with a heart of blue. On its way to America from a London gallery, its frame failed. Once the conservator had cleared the shattered glass embedded in the art, he hunched over a magnifying glass, holding up tiny flecks of the paper’s edges that had ripped off to find where they belonged.

I also learned that some of the worst enemies of precious artifacts aren’t humans but mice, insects, and moisture. A copy of the Nuremberg Chronicle had come in to have sections of its cover mended. Made of rag paper in the late 1400s, the book blossomed with vibrantly colored woodcut illustrations. Metals in the paints were slowly breaking down the paper. A conservator invited me to smell the text to see if I could detect the rat-urine aroma he’d noted. To me, it just smelled musty. The bottom corners of the pages had been darkened by centuries of oily fingers flipping pages. The conservator imagined people sitting down to lunch while thumbing through it.

The pandemic complicated archival restoration efforts—you can’t exactly mend the Nuremberg Chronicle remotely. Most labs, archives, libraries, and museums closed, at least temporarily. The National Center for Preservation Technology and Training was quick to offer advice on personal protection equipment, disinfecting artifacts, and safe reopening. The American Institute for Conservation collected a trove of resources relating to caring for collections and the people who interact with them during the pandemic.

CCAHA’s lab closed for only a few months last spring; by June 2020, it was back up and running, with an abbreviated, staggered work schedule. By then, research had shown the coronavirus was undetectable on library materials after three days, so the people whose job it was to handle such materials could feel more at ease. Unfortunately, some germ-mitigation efforts actually pose a threat to artifacts: Library of Congress research showed that alcohol-based hand sanitizers can cause some types of paper to yellow. The pandemic also forced CCAHA to get creative about its other work; the center now holds combination online/hands-on preservation training classes and performs virtual assessments of archival collections. The lessons learned in dealing with this pandemic can be carried into future emergencies and disruptions of normal life.

For many artifacts, their importance is born of the damage they’ve amassed. The inky paw prints left on a 15th-century manuscript give it character, and tell a story of their own. The same goes for the dozens of doodles Charles Darwin’s children left on his draft of On the Origin of Species. But these defacements occurred around the time of the artifacts’ creation, not at the hands of researchers far in the future.

“Touch and handling and use add to the meaning of documents,” Elizabeth Yale said. “As you see people writing on them, shedding a hair on them, maybe even dropping candle wax on them—the fact that these have been used in some way, and you can see those traces in the documents, can [make] them even more meaningful for the historians. Even something that destroyed the documents can make it more interesting and more valuable.”

One of the most miraculous restoration techniques I learned about involved new technologies being used to render legible texts once thought damaged beyond recognition. A digital-imaging specialist at CCAHA showed me how the center restored completely faded handwriting using UV photography. “We’re always discovering new ways to analyze the text that we have … Material analysis, chemical analysis, studying the metal in the pigments, studying the DNA in the parchment … A hundred years ago, nobody would have thought of that,” Yale said. Ash-encased Herculaneum library texts? Readable. The Dead Sea Scrolls? Readable. Their survival shows the importance of preserving even those documents that appear to be a total loss.

But the technology of digitization can be a double-edged sword. The researcher who told me about her sneezing friend reasoned that the damage would be okay, because there was most likely a record of what was held in the text: Someone, somewhere would have taken a photo of it, would have copied down its contents. But is it enough to have digital records remembering things for us? Digitization is certainly a great way to preserve knowledge and make it more widely available, but the connection humans feel to physical objects themselves can never be replaced. I was surprised by how emotional I felt holding letters written by women I’d spent months researching. When an archive-worthy document is destroyed beyond restoration, we lose the stories that the artifact itself tells, stories that digitization can’t capture.

“We are the stewards of what everyone who comes after us will be able to learn from,” CCAHA’s Feige mused. “In deciding to preserve, we're being responsible stewards of life. That sounds so big when I say it like that … but I think it really is that big.”