Then, using a modified version of spectral imaging technology developed for the military, France solved one of the greatest mysteries baffling researchers of the American Revolution: “Subjects.”
“His handwriting is usually so neat, and words are simply crossed out in other places,” France said. “But this was a very deliberate attempt to write over the word ‘subjects’ and cover it.”
France, 44, now a leading cultural heritage preservation scientist at the Library of Congress, was named one of four finalists for this year’s Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Science and Environmental Medal for her work in developing imaging techniques that won’t harm documents. Considered the federal worker’s Academy Awards, the Service to America medals are awarded annually by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service.
“There’s quite a lot of detective work in this,” said France, who joined the Library of Congress staff in 2007. “I can find something, like the smudge, and say here’s what we’ve got, here’s some extra text, and we’ll collaborate with historians to see if it’s relevant.”
France, a soft-spoken New Zealand native who became a U.S. citizen last year, said she never cared much for history class. Her interests flitted from dance to fashion to textile science, when she found her calling as a preservation scientist.
She has worked to ensure that some of America’s most important historical documents and artifacts will remain intact for generations to come. And she has found secrets hidden within them.
That brownish 150-year-old stain on the Gettysburg Address? A thumbprint that may belong to Lincoln himself. And D.C. city planner Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s original design for the intersection of 16th and K a few blocks from the White House? Possibly a traffic circle. (“My Dan Brown moment,” she quips.)
France’s simple work attire — a white cotton T-shirt, Mulberry straight-cut pants, and loafers that allow her to spend 12-hour days on her feet poring over documents and scanned images — belies her obsession with fabrics. She designs most of her clothes and prefers styles reminiscent of Issey Miyake, the Japanese designer known for his geometric silhouettes and clean lines.
When working with the imaging technology, France wears her bright orange safety goggles — “They’re my Jackie O-slash-Bono glasses,” she says — to protect her eyes from the machine’s ultraviolet rays.
France scans documents through the spectrum of light, usually from UV through the visible into the infrared region. She then analyzes the scanned images using various combinations of light spectra, or wavelengths.
A document’s response to different wavelengths of lights based on the chemicals and elements in and on it can yield information such as different inks used at different times, for example.