American Archives Month 2018: What’s your favorite tool?

October is American American Archives Month. Rebecca Grandahl, intern in the Office of Public and Media Communications, will be highlighting the work of our staff throughout the month. For today’s post, we asked our staff: What’s your favorite tool?

There are, perhaps, no tools quite like the ones found at the Motion Pictures Preservation Lab in the National Archives at College Park, Maryland. Cement splicers, film shrinkage gauges, film synchronizers and 8 mm splicers are just a few of the tools that staff use every day.

Criss Kovac, supervisor of the Motion Picture Preservation Lab in the National Archives at College Park, holds up a rectangular metal object that she describes as being “really heavy.” The object is about a foot long and half a foot wide, with a thermometer-looking gadget stuck on the left side.

“Film shrinks throughout its life, so [the shrinkage gauge] helps to measure just how much it has shrunk,” Kovac says. “The higher the shrinkage, the more difficult [the film] is to preserve.”

Other tools in the Motion Picture Lab are harder to come by. Heidi Holmstrom, a Motion Picture Specialist at the National Archives, names a film synchronizer as her favorite tool. She shows off the heavy, cube-like metal device that allows for three strands of film to be measured in length at the same time. An embossment on the side of the machine boasts “Hollywood Film Co.”

“They don’t produce these anymore, so you have to find refurbished ones and they’re very expensive to buy,” Holmstrom explains. She says, however, that the National Archives keeps a stash of extras just in case.

film synchronizer
A film synchronizer set up for 35mm film. A footage counter sits on the left, and a spinning wheel above the Hollywood Film Co branding shows frames.

After a fire ravaged the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis, Missouri in 1973, preservation tools were key to trying to preserve what was salvageable from the remains. Kevin Pratt, a staff member at the NPRC, notes that over 16 million records were lost in the fire.

“We’re about information management and connecting people,” Pratt says, elaborating on his position at the NPRC. “We give points of contact to get the job done properly,” Pratt says, attributing much of the Center’s successes to the network of people at the National Archives.

Donna Judd examines damaged documents at her work station at the NPRC.

In another department, however, Education Specialist Christopher Zarr says his favorite tools are “the ones developed to help teachers,” such as DocsTeach and Document Analysis worksheets. DocsTeach specifically works as an online tool produced by the National Archives’ Education division to promote usage of the Archives’ primary source records in educational teaching and help create interactive learning experiences.

“As for archival tools, I have been known to use a microspatula from time to time,” Zarr adds in, referencing the tiny, as the name suggests, tools used to navigate fragile books or perform delicate archival repairs.

A set of micro spatulas, used for separating pages. Source: Indiana University Libraries

In the Education Department in Washington, DC, Amber Kraft has a more abstract take on tools. She says she loves the Archives Sleepover and general public programs.

“I like to make history immersive and interactive, so [I love] anything hands on. It’s all about making history personal… how do you make the words in these records come to life and show their meaning?”

The National Archives Sleepover invites guests to sleep in the Rotunda, home of the Charters of Freedom. The following morning, they enjoy pancakes made by the Archivist of the United States.

Amber points to a small plastic bin with folded black robe inside of it. “This year at the sleepover, we’re going to have the kids dress up as judges and reenact prominent cases from history. After summarizing the case, we will let them decide what they’d rule.” There’s even a gavel included in the getup.

A young guest at the October 13 sleepover bangs down the gavel!


The home-like, comforting feeling expands beyond public events in the Archives. Back at College Park, Audrey Amidon shows off a clunky gray metal tool the size of a small dog.

It’s a cement splicer, used to attach new liter to films which is then used to label items by item, number, or element.

“It gets warm and comforting when it heats up,” Amidon says. She goes on to explain that in order to splice film, the emulsion must be scraped off. “There’s something really satisfying about scraping the emulsion off,” she says.

Audrey Amidon holds a cement, or “hot,” splicer. The main slab of metal heats up when in use.


There’s also the more abstract form of comfort living within the Archives: the people themselves. National Archives Volunteer Emma Taylor says that her fellow volunteers are her own favorite tool.

They are the greatest resource to use because everyone has a different background and diverse interests,” Taylor says. “I love that I can get so many varied perspectives.I leave everyday learning something new.”

From hands-on work with raw, old materials to planning and sharing and the spirit of the Archives’ history through a sleepover, there are hundreds of different tools one might come across in the nationwide reach of the National Archives. What’s your favorite?

Some of the great volunteers you might meet at the National Archives in College Park, from left to right: Luis Caza, Burt Leete, and Cassie Ghee

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