Today’s post comes from Alan Walker, archivist at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland.
In my reflective moments, I think about what has kept me here at the National Archives for all this time. It couldn’t be the bone-wearying monotony of shuffling heavy cartons of records from here to there, or the tedium of changing out old information systems and learning the vagaries of new ones. No, there’s something else that gets me in the door every morning. Fasteners.
You wouldn’t think that something so trivial would hold my attention for any length of time. And yet, paper fasteners play such a vital role in our daily lives here. Consider: when researchers open boxes of records, they will see the telltale signs—the double round holes centered at the tops of the documents, the pinprick perforations in the corners. And many fasteners are still doing their duty among the records now.
It is a canon of archival preservation that fasteners are the devil’s work; capable of doing lasting and disfiguring damage to their host’s integrity, they must be removed, and forthwith. And so they are. Textual processing staff at all National Archives facilities do this every day. Perhaps gazillions of the little buggers get the boot each year; here are some Acco fasteners awaiting their fate.
My fellow staff like to collect the unusual ones. Clips, pins, staples, nails (!), tabs, and types whose names I couldn’t begin to fathom—we have come across an astounding variety among the records. Customer Service Division chief Diane Dimkoff told me that she once found an inch-and-a-half-long thorn holding papers together! They were Army records from the field during World War II; you had to make do with what you had.
Just among the humble paper clip, the range of artistry is astounding! Twisted into an amazing variety of shapes, angles, and patterns, there is a touching industrial beauty about them. And the range of raw materials from which these fasteners were produced—steel, aluminum, copper, plastic, string, even compressed paper! —offers a history lesson in itself; how industry introduced new materials and methods of production in the search for more efficiencies of cost, while ever mindful of how they could stylishly set themselves apart from the competition.
The fasteners themselves generate conversation. Archivist Pam Anderson at Lee’s Summit tells of how court records from Puerto Rico were, for lack of folders, simply pierced through the center with extra-large staples. Not a bit of fun for the National Archives staff who have to remove them.
Folks who work in processing the records will tell you that part of what they love about their work is the excitement of opening a box to see what’s inside. And sometimes, while the records themselves may not seem interesting, what’s attached to them can be fasten-ating.
7 thoughts on “Keeping It All Together: Paper Fasteners at the National Archives”
The most memorable fasteners I have ever removed were staples from captured German records from World War II. They were the toughest staples, and the toughest to remove, that I have ever encountered. I will never forget them.
I love the fasteners too, especially the pre-WWII variety.
Great post, Alan! I had a nightmare about deteriorating rubber bands once. That’s when I knew I’d found my proper career.
How timely this article was! We were just discussing a fastener we discovered that we had never seen before. It is a piece of heavy brass foil, square with domed top that is folded over the corner of the pages being fastened together. The foil is embossed with the words “Victor Pat 1904”. Maybe we need to send this bit to the Early Office Museum–they don’t seem to have a sample of this particular fastener. A new discovery??
Great article! I remember lots of those, and I’m sure we have many still on our shelves, since we are academics near retirement. Here’s another fastener from a science fiction short story: “Polemicus Adzegrinder admired the story as he coupled together the crisp charnelfilm sheets with the head segment of a fastener bug.” I wonder how that fastener would hold up over time?
Oh man, that last sentence… you had to go there, didn’t you? I guess puns ARE a staple of blog posts….
My fastener lore includes those at Associated Press in New York. Newsprint wirecopy off the ticker went onto desktop spikes (causing occasional stigmata) and was later bundled into stacks with heavy wire. The bundles, with their prominent central holes, went into cubbyholes for awhile and eventually the basement archives. For their yellow, crumbling color and texture, shape and wires, they’re known as bales of hay.