Positives and Negatives

This post documents the survey of photographic materials for transfer from Federal agencies to the newly created National Archives in the mid-1930s. Surveys were conducted while the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, was still being constructed. Today’s post comes from Joseph Gillette, a processing archivist at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

Between 1935 and 1938, staff in the Division of Accessions in the newly created National Archives conducted preliminary surveys of photographic materials in Federal agencies throughout the Washington, DC, area. These materials were being considered for accession into the National Archives. Deputy examiners produced and completed standard survey forms for the archives. Surveys included the examiner’s name, date of survey, office to which the photographic materials belonged, their location, contact information, and the condition of the records themselves.

Photographic negative files of the Forest Service and Soil Conservation Service, 9/17/1935. (National Archives Identifier 18519680)

A Typical Case

A typical review case, with accompanying photographs, concerns the Navy Department’s Construction and Repair Division, located at the Navy Yard in Washington, DC. The National Archives sent two deputy examiners from the Division of Accessions to survey the photographic records there. The conditions they found were neither the best nor the worst, instead rather typical of government agencies of the time.

Accompanying the report were a number of photographs showing what they found.

The National Archive was eager to take these records, considering their “great value.”

The Good

No repository was considered good across the board. Almost all had at least minor problems. Reviewers focused on the records’ and repositories’ shortcomings so as to triage which collections needed the most care after coming into the National Archives’ possession. Positive conditions were seldom mentioned.

Occasionally, though, reviewers might point out some positive characteristics in their reviews—perhaps the novelty spurring them to make mention of it. The State Department’s International Boundary Commission for Alaska and Canada kept its archives “in very good condition and well cared for.” The Navy Department’s Bureau of Aeronautics “was one of the cleanest film depositories surveyed.”

The Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Dairying maintained indexes to their photographs that were “filed in very good condition and the storage room . . . clean and well kept.” The reviewer went so far as to say there was “no apparent menace to them.”

One of the better organized and well-kept repositories was at the War Department’s Army Medical Museum. No “menace” was identified. Photographs recorded a clean and fairly well organized collection.

The Bad

Unfortunately, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the majority of the surveys documented less than ideal conditions. Most were moderately critical, recording dust, excessive heat, or lack of physical security. A touch of humor could occasionally be applied, as when Reed Haythorne surveyed records at the Bureau of Agricultural Engineering and found the store room “too crowded for any work of any kind.” It was “a typical government room with papers piled high, dusty and is and has been used very little in an inestimable time.” A few, however, documented more extreme conditions.

The Aeronautics Bureau, Photographic Section of the Navy Department maintained film canisters “in very bad condition.” They had recently “found” 61,000 feet of film about which they had previously known “neither . . . its existence or its identity.” Fire, water, and corrosion of canisters were major threats.

The repository at the War Department’s Munitions Building was no better. While the still pictures collection received some criticism, the bulk was reserved for motion pictures.

War Department’s Munitions Building Motion Picture Survey Narrative, 1935. (Records of the National Archives)

The Food Administration of the Department of the Interior kept their records in, of all places, the White House Garage.

Again, their motion picture storage conditions were lacking.

Sample of Deteriorated Motion Picture Film House at the White House Garage, 1/17/1936. (National Archives Identifier 18519715)

Occasionally, surveys were as critical of the records’ caretakers as of the facilities. The caretaker at the Navy Department’s Construction and Repair Blue Print Section was referred to as “incompetent.” Worse, the caretaker at the Department of the Interior’s Division of Vocational Education, Industrial Education Training, appeared resistant to providing the surveyor’s with any help or access whatsoever.

Department of the Interior’s Division of Vocational Education, Industrial Education Training, Preliminary Survey, 1936. (Records of the National Archives)

The Truly Ugly

In August 1935, H. T. Cowling surveyed the collection at the U.S. Navy’s Hydrographic Office. His assessment required two additional pages of narrative. Risks to the records were related to both physical and security conditions.

An Inauspicious End

The last survey, dated June 4, 1938, was conducted at the Federal Reserve Bank in Philadelphia. A third of a cubic foot of film was surveyed. It duplicated footage the National Archives already had. The film was roughly 20 years old. It was in “very bad condition, decayed and rotten.” The National Archives accepted it anyway.

It was shipped to the National Archives in a biscuit tin.

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