NATICK — Diane Packer knows the reverent awe that comes from seeing Natick’s original copy of the Declaration of Independence up close.
The browned parchment oozes historical significance, with its bold, curlicue script spelling out those timeless words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident…”
That’s why Packer, Natick’s clerk, trots the document out at Town Meeting when requesting additional funding to preserve town records. After all, the Declaration of Independence is the crown jewel in Natick’s collection and a testament to the town’s ongoing historical preservation.
On the first floor of Town Hall, tucked away in the clerk’s office, centuries of Natick’s history lay shelved in a fireproof, temperature-controlled vault.
The copy of the Declaration, read into town record after the original document circulated the colonies in 1776, isn’t even the oldest in the collection, which stretches back to the late 1600s and early 1700s.
Among the thousands of documents in the vault are Town Meeting records and birth, death and marriage certificates — records the town is required by law to maintain.
“These are permanent records,” Packer said. “I mean, it’s preserving the history of your community.”
The records conjure an antiquated way of living, providing the roadmap for Natick’s rise from farming community to factory town and bustling suburb. Inked on these pages is the story of how Natick’s earliest residents lived and died, some lost to illnesses largely eradicated by modern medicine — scarlet fever, typhoid, dysentery and rubella.
Slowly but surely, Natick has made progress in restoring and preserving its historical records.
The project, which began before Packer started as clerk 12 years ago, has moved forward in phases. The latest step was launched earlier this month, when the Select Board approved a new contract with restoration company Kofile, a longtime town partner. Natick is among more than 2,000 local governments that have partnered with Kofile to preserve records for long-term retention, according to the company’s website.
Packer requested the funds for this stage from Town Meeting last fall, and for $69,378.94, Kofile will preserve 37 types of records, most dating back to the 1800s and early 1900s.
“Some of the records go back pretty far, and some of them are extremely hard to read — they were written in calligraphy,” Packer said.
Most of the documents the town is preserving are permanent records, though some are saved for historical reasons or research purposes, she said.
Over time, the vault has become a home for Natick’s historical bits and bobs. Toward the beginning of the preservation project, town staff discovered in the vault a book of letters that Civil War soldiers had written home, Packer recalled. Those letters are now in possession of the Morse Institute Library.
“There are some really interesting old maps (in the vault), and if you can read the record of what they did at that time, it’s interesting history,” she said.
How does it work?
However, many documents were created before acid-free paper was in wide use, leaving them vulnerable to degradation. Some of the oldest records were written in pencil, and even typewritten documents are prone to fading with time.
That’s where Kofile comes in.
According to the company’s website, preservationists at Kofile labs stabilize documents; remove tape, glue and lamination; and mend tears and de-acidify the paper to prevent further deterioration.
The original documents then return to Natick in mylar sleeves, preserved in a tidy book.
“You’d be surprised how many times we get requests for some of this stuff, too,” Packer said.
The most common requests are for vital records — birth and death certificates — though Packer will sometimes be asked to dig through the vault for background on certain town policies. Amateur genealogists have also found a treasure trove of records among the town’s collection.
While much of that collection is now historically preserved, there is still some ways to go, and Packer said she will likely request another round of funding from Town Meeting this fall.
There are some permanent records that the town probably won’t go through the trouble of restoring — historic telephone pole locations, for example.
“For me, most of this is about the records that you need … and the records that help to preserve the history of your community,” Packer said.