Saving the Paper of Priceless Places

Candice Gaukel Andrews November 1, 2011 5

Bryce Canyon is just one of many national parks that hold paper of great historical value. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Saving paper is probably one of your highest tenets, as someone who considers himself or herself a “conservationist,” as most Natural Habitat Adventures travelers are. You avoid unnecessarily wasting our precious natural resources. You probably have at least two—if not more—designated waste baskets at home and at work: one for regular refuse and one for paper, in order to recycle it. Natural Habitat Adventures’ own catalogs are printed on paper made with “100 percent recycled fiber and 100 percent post-consumer waste, processed chlorine free and manufactured with electricity that is offset with Green-e certified renewable energy certificates” that are “Ancient Forest Friendly.”


So while it seems we might all have become experts at saving paper—and the digital age has helped immensely with that—there are far fewer who are working on paper saving. By that I mean preserving for posterity the actual medium on which some of our best writings and historically significant photos have been recorded.

And that could be a problem for our national parks.

No instruction manual included

What’s not commonly known is that the National Park Service (NPS) is the owner of one of the largest and most diverse natural and cultural history collections in the world. Its Historic Photograph Collection alone holds more than two million images, on subjects as diverse as Native American heritage, Civilian Conservation Corps camps, park architecture and scenic views over time, some of which may not even exist anymore due to changes in the landscape. The exhibits you see on display at national park visitor centers across the nation are just a fraction of the artifacts the National Park Service holds.

The Alcatraz Island collection features a 1918 Thanksgiving Day menu from the hospital. ©John T. Andrews

For example, in the Bryce Canyon National Park collection, you’ll find a photo of two Paiutes outside their hogan in the late 19th century. The Alcatraz Island, California, collection, part of the NPS’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area, features a 1918 Thanksgiving Day menu from the hospital that was once located on Alcatraz, some of the most well-known photographs of Al Capone and an Indians of All Tribes invitation cover, dated May 31, 1970, during Alcatraz’s Native American occupation from 1969 to 1971.

Much like NPS staff personnel who work to keep the physical paths of parks maintained, a small coterie of paper/photograph conservators are trying to preserve our national parks’ paper trails. Their discipline of art conservation combines the fields of art and science to save what’s on paper.

Unfortunately, however, there are few manuals on how best to restore a letter from Robert E. Lee or a one-of-a-kind photograph of John Muir in his beloved Sierra Mountains. Most art conservators have to invent unique methods for the singular pieces of our past.

Much like saving polar bears before they’re gone, saving our stories is a worthy cause. ©Eric Rock

Paper: a relic of the past?

To save—or, at least, to save a facsimile of—these unique pieces, libraries are rushing to digitize their historical collections, before the real things disintegrate. But if you truly value paper, I think you might agree that looking at a screen of a corrected, digitized version of a 1940 photo of Glacier National Park, when the glaciers were far larger, loses a little something compared to standing, instead, in the presence of that original photo, with its creases, curls and yellowing edges. The gravity, the weight and the ravages of history are somehow not as palpable; glossed over and lost.

I recently watched a sci-fi movie set in the future where a protagonist found a pen and a spiral notebook at a crime scene, and none of the investigators knew what they were. That future is not so far off.

So, much like campaigns to Save the Tigers or Save the Polar Bears before they’re gone, Save the Paper—or, more to the point, Save Our Stories—might be an equally urgent cause for conservationists both expert and self-made, like you and me.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,



  1. Bonnie December 11, 2011 at 11:35 am - Reply

    We collect lots of recycled paper here where i work. I wish we can just give it (as long as there is nothing pornographic or security info on it, etc.) to preschools and elementary schools for the kids to use the clean sides of the paper for coloring and drawing and for the before and after school programs, etc. I enjoyed your article.

  2. Claire November 10, 2011 at 6:52 am - Reply

    Hi Candice. I am in complete agreement with you regarding the immense cultural and aesthetic value of this collection and others like it spread across the entire country. I am a Paper Conservator working in Indianapolis and I want to assure you that much can be done to preserve paper and photographs through proper storage, temperature and humidity regulation, control of light exposure and direct treatment of the damages already incurred. The conservation organization responsible for National Park Service sites can be found by following this link: . This highly respected group of people have an immense workload and do the best they can with the funds they are allocated. Perhaps you could write to your congressional representatives outlining your support for the preservation of national collections. As you can probably imagine, these types of causes suffer greatly in economic times such as these, and letting Congress know that people care about cultural patrimony will be helpful. Thank you for this consciousness-raising essay.

  3. Ntiamoah Eric Maclean November 3, 2011 at 12:11 pm - Reply

    You’re right, if we all accept this truth life would be better!

  4. Joanne M. November 3, 2011 at 4:46 am - Reply

    I like the picture of the fresh tracks walking of; nice write up.

  5. Mary Weyand November 1, 2011 at 12:05 pm - Reply

    As a children’s writer of both non-fiction and historical fiction, I’m always in a quandary about wasting paper. As a tree hugger I print chapters weekly in preparing to attend critique sessions with other trusted writers. I use both sides, and I recycle faithfully. Truly I wonder what is to happen to all that goes into preparing a manuscript. While books now sit smugly on CD’s and multi computers, is that enough? Looking over our shoulder at ancient writers, we can all wonder about writings of those bold thinkers, lost in earthquakes and fires. Does digital do it? I wonder.

    Thanks for provoking. Warm Regards, Mary

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