University of Iowa's Center for Book creates paper for national Magna Carta display (WITH VIDEO)

Restored, rare document will go on public display later this month

  • Photo

Starting next week, anyone visiting the U.S. National Archives can gaze at the only original Magna Carta in the United States, thanks, in part, to the work of Iowans.

Nestled perfectly beneath the 700-year-old legal document is a sheet of pure white cotton paper, specially made by the University of Iowa's Center for the Book.

"Anyone from the state of Iowa can now go to the National Archives rotunda, get in line, wait your turn, and you can literally lean down your face a foot away from [the documents]," said Timothy Barrett, director of UI Center for the Book paper facilities. "Then if you lean your head to the side a bit, you can see a layer of white paper, and you can take a lot of pride in knowing that it was made by the state of Iowa."

In 1215, King John of England demanded the recording and documentation of the rights and liberties of man, calling it the Magna Carta. His successors reissued the document, and it later influenced the creation of law in the United States. The Archives possesses one of just four originals and the only one in the United States.

The newly restored 1297 Magna Carta will go on public display in its state-of-the-art encasement starting Feb. 17 at the National Archives in Washington D.C. The encasement includes an air-tight chamber filled with argon gas covered by laminated glass, and allows visitors to "read" the Latin of the previously damaged document for the first time.

According to the Archives, this new-found legibility wouldn't be possible without the UI Center for the Book's special contribution of white cotton paper that rests in between the document and a perforated metal platform.

The unbleached paper not only brightens the appearance of the translucent Magna Carta, but the soft, acid-free surface also maintains humidity within the sealed case.

"It's a valued part of this new encasement," Archives officials said.

The document doesn't go on display until next Friday, but the UI actually created the special paper more than 10 years ago.

According to Barrett, the National Archives contacted the acclaimed UI Center for the Book back in 1999 to commission the special paper for a similar project. The Archive's Charters of Freedom project included the conservation and display of several historical documents including the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution.

For several months, Barrett and a team of staff and graduate students worked to create the special paper at the center's paper facilities in the Coralville Oakdale Research Campus.

They constructed special equipment, including a makeshift pulley system to lift the incredibly heavy mold, said Lynn Amlie, who was the paper facilities director at the time.

They crafted the paper with high-quality cotton fiber. According to Barrett, cotton fiber has very little non-cellulose content, unlike wood pulp that has to be treated with chemicals and high temperatures. They treated the cotton with a minimal amount of chemicals, washed the chemicals out, cooked it, beat it to a pulp, pressed it, and dried it. The end result was pure white, soft, chemical-free paper.

"It ended up being a very unique process, needless to say," Amlie said.

For Micah Pulleyn, who was then a graduate student at the Center for the Book, the process was anything but simple.

"It was extremely tedious process in that we had to make sure that the fiber content of the paper was perfect," she said.

Pulleyn recalled sitting under extremely bright lights for weeks, pulling tiny stray felt fibers from the paper with tweezers.

"We made so many sheets of paper to send off to make sure they had the one that was perfect," she said.

And when they finally did send those sheets off, it was worth it, she said.

"We all felt extremely proud and very privileged and honored and very grateful to be a part of something that large and off that scope," Pulleyn said. "We put in so many hours and so much devotion and love into this project."

Though the project was intensive and time-consuming, Amlie said she thinks encasing the documents is highly relevant in today's society.

"It really kind of collapses time a bit to be involved in a project that tries to preserve what those documents mean for the history of a country that is really going through another stage of growing pains," she said.

A couple months ago, Barrett said National Archives contacted him to use the same cotton paper for the Magna Carta's encasement. Because the Archive still had some of the paper made back in 1999, Barrett said they did not have to produce any new materials for the exhibit.

Although there will be no sign at the exhibit pointing out the UI's contribution, Barrett said just to know it's there is enough.

"You can imagine, it's an incredible opportunity for us," Barrett said. "But not just for us, for the state of Iowa."

WATCH: Video of the National Archives encasement process

Like what you're reading?

We make it easy to stay connected:

to our email newsletters
Download our free apps

Give us feedback

Have you found an error or omission in our reporting? Tell us here.
Do you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.