Category Archives: Finding Aids

Announcements of new collections and finding aids available.

What’s in a Box? Processing the Neil A. Armstrong papers

People often wonder what archival processing means. In this blog post we explore some of the aspects associated with processing personal papers and archives. The Neil A. Armstrong papers are an excellent example to use for demonstrating a team approach to processing.

The term “processing” conjures all kinds of images in a person’s mind. According to the Society of American Archivists, archival processing is defined as:

Archival Processing, n. ~ 1. The arrangement, description, and housing of archival materials for storage and use by patrons.

Society of American Archivists, A Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology 

On the surface, this work may seem straightforward. However, it is the act of determining how best to arrange, describe, and preserve archival materials that requires a blend of skills, from knowledge of best practices in how to organize unpublished documents, photos, and artifacts according to provenance and original order, to knowing how to assign descriptions to unidentified items using archival descriptive standards, to assigning appropriate subject headings for discoverability, and how to take the right preservation steps (preventive, such as the right environment, security, and storage) or conservation steps (Item-level treatment, such as mending a torn page or removing adhesive from a photograph).

This blend of tasks requires a variety of skill sets, educational background, and training. Archivists, for example, are experts in appraisal, identifying what materials to keep in perpetuity. Archivists are also knowledgeable about privacy and confidentiality issues and donor requirements, both of which will impact which aspects of the collection will be made available immediately for use or require temporary access restrictions. In the Armstrong papers, for example, there are many third-party privacy rights and intellectual property and persona issues that can make providing access to the collection a challenge.

Archivists work with archival assistants to agree upon the right organization as part of the processing plan for a collection. Archival assistants and graduate student employees work under the direction of an archivist to sort and put the entire collection in order, and begin the painstaking process of identifying the contents of each series, or grouping, within the collection. Archival assistants also re-house archival materials into acid-free, lignin-free folders and boxes, perform preservation reformatting, and label materials in the collection.

With a large archival collection, staff may decide to process it as a team, divvying up tasks between archivists, archival assistants, and/or graduate student employees trained in processing. Working with unpublished, unedited personal papers requires a lot of decision making as well as extensive handling of the materials themselves. To cut down on wear and tear, it is important to identify in advance the steps to be taken during processing and who will perform each task.

Because each archival collection is unique, each collection will offer new questions to answer. There are some general questions that archives staff keep in mind when reviewing a collection to be processed. In particular, assessing the condition of a collection when it arrives is essential to avoid possible contamination affecting the rest of the archival collections.

An Armstrong box before processing.

Some of the processing questions to be asked

  • Are there any pests in the box? Evidence of any moisture?
  • Is there evidence of an original order to the collection, showing how the creator used it?
  • How would you group the material into series?
    • By original order?
    • By physical type?
    • By function (correspondence, career activities, volunteer work, etc)?
  • Are there any special housings/boxes needed?
  • Are there items in the collection that pose a threat to its preservation? For example, are there rusty staples or paper clips to be removed? Are there newspaper clippings adjacent to other documents? Are there extra preservation measures needed?

Anniversary publication, Neil A. Armstrong papers

Processing the Neil A. Armstrong papers

Although the bulk of Neil Armstrong’s papers were donated by his wife Carol in 2012, there have been additional donated boxes received periodically since that time. The boxes the materials arrive in can be a variety of sizes, some with materials in an original order, others with a variety of types of items within each. Collection materials range from paper documents to photographic negatives and prints, maps, audio-visual recordings, and 3-dimensional artifacts and memorabilia. Some published materials, such as newspaper clippings and journal articles collected by Armstrong are included.

Wooden model planes, Neil A. Armstrong papers








Items in an original Gemini VIII box of Armstrong papers.







There were hundreds of decisions to be made, such as…

  • Determine the order to arrange items in.


  • Decide what to do with a piece of the Berlin Wall!

Piece of Berlin Wall, Neil A. Armstrong papers








Once an arrangement scheme is determined, Items are placed in acid-free archival folders and labeled with the collection name, collection number, box and folder number.  Series titles and the contents also go on the folder. Pencil is used, as to not accidentally mark in ink on the contents. Folder labels are avoided, as they can deteriorate over time and fall off and leave adhesive residue on the folders.


The folders are placed into archival boxes and await final processing decisions. Sticky notes are often used to temporarily mark the outside of boxes, but are never left on archival material to avoid adhesive damage to the collection.

    After all of the final processing decisions are made, the boxes make their way to the shelves to await the final labeling.   


One 2016 addition donated by Carol Armstrong was comprised of  14.2 cubic feet of material.

Here are a few of those items…


Items from Armstrong’s childhood.

Mixed materials, Neil A. Armstrong papers









Also found among the additions were documents from throughout his career.

Yes, it’s a Purdue postcard…

Purdue University mail, Neil A. Armstrong papers







And these various items…

A letter of thanks from the University of Cincinnati upon Armstrong’s retirement from teaching.

Special membership cards.




A wide assortment of Armstrong’s aviation themed tie tacks.


Processing challenges sometimes require a call to outside experts. Neil Armstrong’s Samsonite briefcase accidentally closed and locked during  intake of this 2016 addition to his papers. The Purdue locksmiths were called in.

(The briefcase was full of documents.)              


The current tally…

This large and complex collection took two years to process. However, because Neil Armstrong and his office assistants over the years had labeled and maintained his papers in groups, that order eventually became recognized in a large percentage of the collection as boxes and files were examined.  A team of three staff members met weekly to discuss the boxes and make processing decisions to best reflect the original order recognized. When obviously out of original order materials were encountered, the team discussed how to logically arrange that material according to best archival practices.  The careful processing of these papers honor Mr. Armstrong’s legacy.

Neil A. Armstrong papers
221.7 cubic feet (466 manuscript boxes)
364 page Finding Aid

Click on on this cover page from the finding aid for the full inventory.

Neil A. Armstrong papers finding aid


The Neil Armstrong papers at work…


Supporting Instruction, Learning, & Scholarship

Once the papers were processed and open to researchers, instruction archivists formed partnerships with teaching faculty in the History Department, English Department, American Studies, Honors College, and the Polytechnic School to integrate the Armstrong papers into course instruction. Students are introduced to Purdue Archives and taught how to conduct archival research as part of an information strategy. Since the opening of the papers in 2014, a number of students have explored topics related to the history, technology, international relations, engineering, computer science, and graphic design during the American Space Program. Several students have had their research published or have presented at the annual Purdue Undergraduate Research Conference. The Archives has also been a resource for documentary filmmakers, television news productions, and well-known authors who have used the collection to create films and new scholarly works. In addition, a small exhibit area has held two exhibitions based upon the collection and a partnership with Purdue Galleries in 2019 resulted in the first art exhibition inspired by artists’ use of the Armstrong papers.

All of this generation of new knowledge, scholarship, and creative works was made possible first by the generous donation of Neil Armstrong’s papers by Neil and his wife, Carol Armstrong, and secondly, by the two years worth of hundreds of hours of labor intensive processing by Archives staff to make the papers accessible and to preserve them.

Examples of courses that integrated archival literacy instruction & the Armstrong papers 

  • HIST 302H “Flight Paths: Purdue’s Aerospace Pioneers” (archival research seminar)
  • HIST 495 “Flight and Space Exploration: An Archival Research Seminar” (archival research seminar)
  • HIST 395 “Air and Space: The Technology and Culture of Flight” (archival research seminar)

    HIST 395 student Jaehyeok Kim references documents from the Neil Armstrong papers during his 2019 Apollo in the Archives undergraduate research conference presentation.

  • HONR 299 “Food, Kitchens, and the Politics of Taste”
  • TECH 299 “Seminar in Humanities & Technology”
  • HIST 494 “Science and Technology in American Civilization”
  • ENG 106 (multiple sections)

Student research and scholarship generated by use of the collection:

  • Quest: The History of Spaceflight Quarterly (Volume 23, No 4, 2016)
  • The Exponent The Literary Edition (Spring 2016)
  • The three engineering and science students (Sam Conklin, Alex Crick, and Jaehyeok Kim), in Think, the magazine of the College of Liberal Arts (fall of 2019).  See their full articles in “Man + Machine: Research from Purdue’s Neil A. Armstrong Papers,”


Examples of television and film productions using the collection:

  • First Man pre-production researchers (2018 release)
  • Tin Goose Films documentary, “Armstrong”. Directed by David Fairhead, narrator Harrison Ford, by Tin Goose Films (Theatrical release July 12, 2019)
  • CBS This Morning Saturday,  “The Armstrong Letters:  A Look at the Astronaut’s Collection of Correspondence” (Aired July 20, 2019, April 11, 2020.)


“Apollo in the Archives” exhibit. 2019

 Apollo in the Archives exhibit, 2019

Purdue student club tour of Apollo in the Archives exhibit. Students worked hard to finish Neil Armstrong’s calculus homework (on display) without calculators atop lunar descent and ascent planning diagrams display.  “Apollo in the Archives” exhibit. 2019.




“Return to Entry” exhibition,Purdue Galleries, 2019.

“Return to Entry” exhibition, Purdue Galleries, 2019.


Artist Frances Gallardo talks with Carol Armstrong about the artwork Gallardo created and what in the Armstrong papers inspired her to create the piece. “Return to Entry” exhibition, Purdue Galleries, 2019.



It has been an honor and a pleasure to process and share the Neil A. Armstrong papers!


This blog is by Mary Sego, archives processing assistant. The content is based on a poster presented by Mary Sego and Tracy Grimm, Barron Hilton Archivist for Flight and Space Exploration, at the 2017 Libraries “One Book Higher.” The information has been updated to reflect recent use of the Armstrong papers.

Taming Electricity: A Purdue Student’s Career in Electromagnetic Compatibility

Electricity, or the flow of electric charge, is arguably the most important invention behind the spectacular advancement in technology witnessed over the last century. It has truly revolutionized our lives on planet Earth, and the way we explore other worlds in the universe. Today, as we sit in our comfortable climate-controlled buildings talking to people on the other side of the globe, we take electricity for granted. We also tend to overlook the hard work of countless engineers and scientists for harnessing the power of electricity. Donald Heirman is one such electrical engineer who worked on some fundamental problems in electrical circuits.

The EMC "can of worms"

The EMC “can of worms”

One interesting problem faced by engineers early on was the relationship between electricity and magnetism: they are intertwined, each is a by-product of the other. When an electrical circuit is powered up, it produces a magnetic field. This can create “disturbance” in a nearby (or even in the same) circuit, and cause performance degradation. If this seems too technical, recall experiencing cross-talk on a 90’s landline telephone, or static noise-lines on a TV. The phenomenon is known as Electromagnetic Interference (EMI), and becomes of greater concern as electronic devices shrink in size. Lots of electrical components are in close proximity of each other, and hence prone to electromagnetic interference.

Mr. Heirman working in a "noise-free" environment c.1979

Mr. Heirman working in a “noise-free” environment c.1979

“Taming” electricity is hard work but vital for the smooth functioning of our modern lives. That is exactly what Donald Heirman dealt with during his career at AT&T spanning more than three decades. Having graduated with BS (1962) and MS (1963) degrees in EE from Purdue, Mr. Heirman joined AT&T Bell Labs as a young electrical engineer. Over the years, he worked on some of the most important and exciting projects at AT&T including the development of an Open Area Test Site facility, and a Transverse Electromagnetic (TEM) cell for the Electromagnetic Compatibility (EMC) analysis of devices. His work focused on electromagnetic interference testing and compliance, and stretched to a range of systems including computer processors, early telephone systems, antennae, road vehicles, and medical devices. Mr. Heirman was also the founding manager of Lucent Technologies (Bell Labs) Global Product Compliance Laboratory. In this role, he was in charge of the company’s major EMC and regulatory test facility, and its participation in national and international EMC standardization committees.

Mr. Heirman started his EMC career at a time when there were few legal limits on EM emissions from electronic devices (the FCC did not have EMC standards for electronic devices until 1979). His passion led him to join (and later lead) international efforts towards EMC standardization. He continues to work with all major national and international standards organizations including ANSI, IEEE and IEC. His many contributions to global electro-technical standardization in the field of EMC have been acknowledged in the form of some of the highest awards in the area.

Click to see the Bicycle Water Race c.1961

Click to see the Bicycle Water Race c.1961

Mr. Heirman’s papers ( provide a fascinating peek into the life and career of an EMC engineer. In addition, the papers offer an unparalleled insight into the history and evolution of EMC standards. The collection also includes some of Mr. Heirman’s amateur videos showcasing life at Purdue University during the early 1960’s. These videos are a rare glimpse of some of the events (sports at Purdue, the Purdue grand prix, ground breaking of the Purdue Airport, and the 1961 visit of President Eisenhower), and traditions (pie throwing, Iron Key, bicycle water race) at Purdue University. The video clip on the right shows just one such tradition (now forgotten): the bicycle water race.

Mr. Heirman currently runs a training and consulting business by the name of Don HEIRMAN Consultants. He continues to be a key player and educator in the field of EMC. His papers are part of the Donald N. Heirman Collection in the Virginia Kelly Karnes Archives and Special Collections Research Center at Purdue Libraries. The collection is open for research.