Working at the National Archives: Inside the Ice Cube

Staff wear hooded parkas and gloves to stay warm while packing film in the Ice Cube.

Today’s guest post is by Bob Beebe, archives technician at the Federal Records Center in Lenexa, Kansas.

Where’s the coolest place to work at the National Archives? The Ice Cube, of course!

At the Federal Records Center (FRC) in Lenexa, Kansas, one storage bay stands out from all of the other rooms at our facility. It is a stand-alone room, equipped with state-of-the-art scanners and barcodes. And it is just a bit cooler than the rest of the center, checking in at 35°F in the main room and 25°F in the freezer. We refer to the room as the “Ice Cube,” and the items stored in the room are assorted types of film.

The staff members who volunteer to work in the Ice Cube wear parkas, overalls, and gloves to keep warm. We have three to four staff trained to work in the Ice Cube, and they are rotated on a weekly basis. Most weeks, a single person takes care of all of the work for the area with extra help for quality control checks and on the occasional day when we receive a high number of requests. We use barcoding to keep track of the more than 350,000 items stored in the 77,000 feet of space.

Scanning can be chilly work!

We only fulfill requests on days when we can overnight the shipments to the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, so most weeks we only ship Monday through Thursday. The average number of requests is around 30, and we try to get all requests in by around 11 am CDT.

We pull the cans of film, scan them, pack them in plastic bags, box them up, and pack the boxes into reusable shipping containers. The plastic bags keep water from condensing on the cans of film when they come out of the 35° room and enter the non-climate-controlled space in the cave, where it is much warmer and more humid. The containers are filled with foam inserts to allow for four 12” square boxes in each of the normal sized containers. We then lock and seal each container for shipment. The containers are picked up around 2:30 in the afternoon and arrive in College Park for researchers the following morning.

Film returns twice a week from College Park and is refiled within a day or two of its arrival. The film returns in the same containers and boxes, but since it is coming from the warmer temperatures to the cold confines of Ice Cube it is not necessary to seal the film in the bags (though they often are sealed in since we re-use the bags).

Other than the temperature, the main thing that differentiates the Ice Cube from the rest of the Lenexa FRC is the use of scanners and barcodes. Each can of film and each location has its own unique barcode. We use untethered scanners to scan film to and from the shelves. We scan film once as it moves it out of the Lenexa FRC’s possession to the requestor. This scan also tells us in which container the film was shipped and when it was shipped.

We scan returning film as it comes out of the shipping container and is placed in our refile processing area. And we scan the can a final time when it is reshelved to its original location. When all scans are complete, we download the information from the scanner into the database on the computer located in Ice Cube. Refile locations are checked against the film can’s original location to ensure that the film returns to the right place.

It's important to have the right gear on while handling temperature-sensitive material.

Most of the film shares space in a shelf location. Twenty or more cans of film can be stored in one cubic foot, although most locations have nine or fewer cans of film per cubic foot.

The use of barcodes and scanners gives us flexibility in managing the collection. Film does not have to share space with film that is “related” to it, like records generally do in the paper world. Barcoding allows us to store film based on size, shape, and amount of reference. To make reference easier, we can move whole boxes of film to the back positions on shelves and then put smaller cans of film in front of them. Film that is unlikely to be requested can be shelved on the upper units.

The majority of film that is requested by researchers is aerial film and motion picture film. But there are other types of film in the Ice Cube, including microfilm, x-rays, and overlays. Our map cases include aerial images of all the counties in the country. There are a number of cans that have been pulled over the years that have intriguing labels, from aerial film of Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945 to Nixon in China and others including “Submarine Sound Silencing” (a film I saw at least four or five times in during my service on a submarine many years ago). We also have items from the Hoover, Truman, Kennedy and Nixon Presidential libraries.

One thought on “Working at the National Archives: Inside the Ice Cube

  1. Why does the film need to be kept that cold? I know you need to preserve the film, but some of the temperatures you mentioned are below freezing.

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