“A Day that Will Live in Infamy”

Of late I have been interning at an historical museum in the greater Washington, D.C. area and it has been pretty much the best job I’ve ever had. It has been extremely educational, both from the exhibits perspective and from the office politics side. (In fact, one department lead said that apart from the actual job experience, he wanted us interns to observe how half of his job is just navigating the personnel.)

Every day is a new adventure and last week was no different. My fellow interns and I had an entire day scheduled in the paper lab, which is where all the paper artifacts get restored and preserved. What were we going to be doing down there for a whole day, I wondered to myself. Well as it turns out, we were actually going to be preserving some newspapers.

Wait what?


The paper lady had everything ready for us. First she demonstrated how to make paste, which has been used in this capacity for something like a thousand years. The paste is just wheat starch and water, plus some heat for a little chemistry magic, then dilute with ionized water until it becomes the consistency of watery glue. You want to use ionized water because it has been filtered to take out all the harmful metals regular tap water will pick up from the pipes. I think she said magnesium and copper(?) will deteriorate paper faster. Once the magnesium and copper(?) are removed, there are extra ions/electrons(??) floating around in the water, so calcium is added to create a pH neutral water. Plus calcium is good for paper. So…. more chemistry magic.

You will want to dilute the paste because you don’t want to create something stronger than the paper you’re mending. For example, if you’re repairing crumbly old newspaper, you don’t want the patch to be stronger than the paper itself because then the newspaper won’t be able to support it and it will become a new opportunity for deterioration. Then the paper lady gave us a demo on how to tear small strips of Korean paper and get just enough paste on it to affix it to the original newspaper. Quick use of a makeup brush to make sure the fibers of both papers blend, then put a weight on it while it dries, and presto! A paper mend.


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Brush some paste onto the plate then dip the Korean paper into that as a way to control saturation. Please note this paper is from Honolulu.


It can be physically taxing to sit hunched over for so long. Nearly the entire day had passed without me noticing, but then I do like meticulous, tangible work. Also, this was a great opportunity to check out what conservators do. The Korean paper was not color match for the newspaper, so all the mends had to be on the inside.

From the historical standpoint, it was interesting reading the paper and all the advertisements to see what basic life was like in 1941. Oh right, have I mentioned that yet? This paper is dated from 1941. December 7th, to be exact.

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Yeah so … this happened


So yes, that is from Pearl Harbor. My particular page of the paper was not very interesting. It just had a list of different residents, their addresses, and they are looking to entertain so many number of servicemen for the holidays. There was also an advertisement for a menstrual cramp remedy.

I think it’s great that the residents listed their addresses so any random serviceman who wanted to go have a Christmas dinner could go. I also think it’s a little bit creepy.


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The white blots are the Korean paper, plus some weights, plus an ad for a cramps remedy, plus something about the Steelers. And the paper’s date, at the very top.


One of the other interns had a page declaring martial law in the Hawaii territory. I didn’t get a chance to read it but we have to go back and hopefully I’ll get to read it then. I’m curious to know the immediate reaction to the bombings on Hawaii. All we’re really taught in school is that America entered World War 2. (Cue Mighty Mouse theme: “Here we come to save the day.. !“)

To be honest, I didn’t read most of the paper outside of the two articles shown above. I was pretty excited just be touching the paper at all, and to be doing conservation. I think I should have considered conservation as a viable career option way back when I was making these kinds of decisions. But this has raised some questions, because I am a pretty terrible World War 2 historian and know almost nothing about it. That front page says Manila was bombed as well. I wonder which was the more strategic target, from the Japanese perspective. Does this mean the Philippines were on the Allied side?

We have to go back to watch the paper lady conserve the main page. There are a couple of big holes that we don’t know how to fix, and if this paper ever goes into an exhibit, it needs to look good. I’m so glad I got to experience this: conservation is definitely undervalued. Touching a paper from Pearl Harbor was pretty cool too.


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