Williams takes steps to preserve its copies of the Founding Documents, including a draft of the U.S. Constitution and one of the earliest printed copies of the Declaration of Independence.

Berkshires residents may be aware of the region’s numerous historical sites. Fewer may realize that some of the nation’s founding documents—including a draft of the U.S. Constitution and one of the earliest printed copies of the Declaration of Independence—also reside here, in the Williams College archives.

With guidance from leading experts at the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC) and the Williamstown + Atlanta Art Conservation Center, Williams recently announced additional measures to preserve these rare artifacts for future generations.

Since 1987 the Founding Documents, as they are known at the college, have been on permanent display in the Chapin Gallery at Williams’ Sawyer Library. But while sunlight may be a great political disinfectant, it is an antagonist of paper and ink. Although the college’s display space provides extraordinary UV filtering and climate control, conservation experts and college Special Collections staff agreed on the value of further measures to safeguard the artifacts for posterity, while ensuring continued opportunities for the public to view them at times throughout the year.

Starting in Fall 2023, Williams will bring the documents out for public view at special events and programs, including for the college’s popular 4th of July readings, held in conjunction with the Williamstown Theatre Festival. Throughout the rest of the year the documents will be housed in a zero-light storage facility and enabled to “rest,” reducing the risk of environmental effects on paper and ink. This level of protection is comparable to best practices at the National Archives and other leading museums and institutions.

In addition to limiting the documents’ time on display, Williams will construct a new document housing with improved educational signage. Later copies of the founding documents, also owned by the college, will meanwhile be available for use by researchers. And high-quality digital reproductions can be viewed online or downloaded by the public for free at any time.

Williams archivists will apply the same new protocols to other major documents in the school’s collection, including a rare First Folio of Shakespeare’s works and a copy of the Algonquian or Eliot Bible, the first Bible published in the British territories of North America and the first translation of the Christian Bible into an indigenous American language.

The meticulous process of relocating and rehousing the Founding Documents  is now underway, and is expected to continue through the summer. During this brief time the Documents will not be available for public viewing.

“We embrace our responsibility to care for the documents as precious historical artifacts,” says Lisa Conathan, Williams Head of Special Collections. “While it has been long practice to leave the documents out for public view, as archivists and historians we’re excited about the possibilities of a periodic display schedule, including special events and programs that can draw visitors into closer engagement with the Founding Documents and their historical context.”

Published July 5, 2023