Documenting National Archives History

October is American Archives Month! We’re wrapping up our month-long series of blog posts about electronic records. Today’s post comes from Elle Benak from the National Archives History Office.

Contact sheet from the transfer, August, 12, 2016. (Photo by Steve Greene, National Archives)

On August 12, 2016, the National Archives transferred photographs from 25 years of our history into permanent storage.

What makes this transfer so significant is that it not only covers a 25-year time span, but it is also the first time we have ever transferred our own photographs electronically and highlights the shift in National Archives photography from film to digital.

The National Archives photographs its events, programs, visits, and other activities. We use these photos to promote the National Archives and document our history.

The photos are from events such as the opening of Nixon Materials to the public, President Clinton’s visit to the National Archives, and various award ceremonies.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell In A Ceremony To Mark Transfer Of The First Increment of Electronic Documents from Department of State
Archivist of the United States John Carlin and Secretary of State Colin Powell in a Ceremony to mark the transfer of the first increment of electronic records from the Department of State, 4/13/2004. (Records of the National Archives)

Interestingly, the National Archives’ first digital photo transfer also contained photos documenting the first ever digital photo transfer to the National Archives.

The photos also document National Archives staff and renovations to the National Archives Building in Washington, DC. For example, the transfer includes photos documenting the installation of new cases for the Charters of Freedom in 2003.

After the photos are taken, Jeff Reed of Creative Services sorts through them, and using the records schedule, labels them permanent or temporary.

Jeff or another staff member names the photos, makes minor color and brightness corrections, and writes descriptions before storing the images to wait for permanent transfer. Photos are labeled by year and event. Each photo has a different life span depending on its level of retention.

Public Opening and Time Travelers
Founding Fathers re-enactors standing in front of the newly re-encased Constitution as part of the weekend activities at the reopening of the Rotunda, September, 18, 2003. (Records of the National Archives.)

Typically, only about 1 to 3 percent of records produced by federal agencies are considered permanent. For the National Archives, the photos deemed permanent are those relating to “significant events, personalities, and other subjects relating to the mission and activities of NARA in particular and American history in general.”

Photos that are deemed permanent are transferred into permanent storage after 10 years. The photos are handed off in a group of five years.

When the National Archives photographs arrived at Archives IIwhere our Still Pictures unit is locatedthey went through a process called initial processing. For film photos, initial processing includes rehousing the photos by putting them into new jackets, folders, or containers. Staff also check to makes sure the photos are in the correct order.

Initial processing for digital photos is similar to the processing for film photos but done electronically. The end result for digital processing is to get photos integrated into the Electronic Records Archives, just like film is processed to be stored in the Still Pictures Unit stacks at Archives II.

Another step in the archival process is creating metadata for a record. Metadata is the who, what, where, when, and why of a record. Metadata includes a title, type of record, date, scope and content, the local identifier, the National Archives identifier number, and the file name.

In most cases, Still Pictures creates the metadata, but with the transfer this summer, Photographic Services had already written the metadata for these files.

Rededication Ceremony with President Bush
Charters Rededication Ceremony with President George W. Bush, First Lady Laura Bush, and Archivist of the United States John Carlin, September 17, 2003. (Records of the National Archives)

Normally, when an organization transfers photographs to the National Archives, the files contain both documents that are considered to be permanent as well as ones that are temporary. The archivist who initially processes these files has to sort through the files to weed out the ones considered nonpermanent and dispose of them.

By providing the appropriate metadata and only sending permanent photographs, the National Archives will use this transfer as an model for other organizations to prepare their documents for transfer and storage.

The digital photos will be added to the National Archive Catalog as soon as initial processing is complete.

Before this recent transfer, about 60 percent of the film photography had already been digitized by Richard Schneider from Preservation Programs for access purposes. The rest of the film photos will have to be scanned and uploaded before they can be made available online.

Although this was not the first transfer of digital photos to the National Archives, it was our first transfer of digital photos and a milestone for our own recordkeeping process.

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