What’s New in the National Archives Catalog: British Photographs of World War I

As part of our efforts to digitize photographic and moving image records related to World War I and World War II, we recently digitized a series of British Photographs from World War I (1914-1918) and made them available in our online catalog.

This series of photographs taken by British photographers depicts the military activities and personnel of several nations during World War I, and includes subjects such as major military campaigns of the war showing the marching of troops, living conditions in the trenches, transportation and communication problems, food supply movement, human misery behind battlefield experiences, as well as the homefront commitment.

These public domain records are being digitized through a gift to the National Archives Trust Fund with the goal of making them more accessible for everyone to use, from teachers and local community groups, to museums and filmmakers.

Some highlights include:

A.S.C. Women at Work

A.S.C. Women at Work. National Archives Identifier 16577208

The irrepressible Australians at Anzac. An Australian bringing in a wounded comrade to hospital, circa 1915

The irrepressible Australians at Anzac. An Australian bringing in a wounded comrade to hospital, circa 1915. National Archives Identifier 533106

King George of England visits American Cemetery near St. Quentin Canal, France

King George of England visits American Cemetery near St. Quentin Canal, France. National Archives Identifier 16576501

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Paying Homage to Margaret Cross Norton

Last week I had an opportunity to visit with Dave Joens and his staff at the Illinois State Archives—the first AOTUS to visit since Wayne Grover was there in 1952.  Dave and I were able to reenact the original photo op at the same catalogue drawer!

Archives-Norton 1953


Dave Joens and AOTUS























Margaret Cross Norton was the first State Archivist of Illinois from 1922 until 1957.  She was a co-founder of the Society of American Archivists, served in SAA leadership roles for many years, and edited American Archivist from 1946 to 1949.  Her “Catalog Rules: Series for Archives Material” trained generations of archivists.

She fought the good fight distinguishing archives from libraries and historical societies:

“One might conclude…that the ideal archivist is a scholar sitting in a remote ivory tower safeguarding records of interest only to the historian.  In reality the archivist is at the very heart of his government and the archival establishment is a vital cog in its governmental machinery.  Archives are legal records the loss of which might cause serious loss to citizens or the government.”

In the mid-1950s, Grover was working on “The Archivist’s Credo” (later Code) and sent drafts out for review.  Our records are rich with the correspondence between Norton and Grover. She challenges language and basic principles, addresses the non-partisan nature of government archives, and makes it clear that archivists are hired to process and serve archives and not to research their own scholarship!

An added general comment to the draft:

“Probably this also does not belong in the code, but I would say that the most important single need for the archivist is for a strong sense of order.  Disorder must worry him.  I don’t think enough emphasis has been placed upon this in the training of archivists.”

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Meeting the Government’s Email Challenge

Free and equal access to government records is essential to this country’s democracy.  Citizens have the right to see, examine, and learn from the records that guarantee their rights, document government actions, and tell the story of the nation. As Archivist of the United States, it is my job to make sure we identify, save, and make available the permanently valuable records of the U.S. Government. It’s also my job to instruct federal agencies on how to make this “what to keep” decision for records ranging from memos written on old onion-skin paper and stored in filing cabinets to electronic records, including email. This is especially important as the volume of electronic records continues to grow.

What should be saved? Not all or even most federal records make the cut as permanent records. Literally billions of government email records are created each year.  Some are clearly worth saving as permanent records in the National Archives. Many others, which document basic business and administrative activities, are needed for some period of time before they can be deleted.  And still others, such as lunch plans and routine notifications of meetings, can be deleted immediately.

Records Arriving at the National Archives Building, 1935. National Archives Identifier 7820503

The responsibility – and honor – of preserving and providing access to historical federal records rests with the National Archives. However, this work begins within the walls of each federal agency, supported by the National Archives.  Our experts develop guidance, recommendations, and solutions to address the recordkeeping challenge. We provide extensive training and direct counsel for records managers at all federal agencies.

Recently our Records Management leaders met with all agency recordkeeping officials to discuss their responsibilities and how they can best meet the challenges of managing email records. By some estimates, over 100 billion emails are sent and received by the private sector every day; we estimate that the government produces over 40 billion emails a year.

Until recently, the best approach was for each federal employee to decide which of their emails were valuable and then to print out and file these emails manually, or save them electronically. This is the same thing they are supposed to do with all other records they create or receive.  The reality, however, is that few people have the time or expertise to sort and file each and every email consistently, numerous times a day.

For this reason, the National Archives has asked the software industry to create automated systems, which take personal decision making out of the process, to capture electronic records and separate the permanent from the temporary.  In the meantime, our staff has created an approach for email management called Capstone. Under Capstone, an agency designates a number of senior officials as Capstone officials, and saves all of their email as permanent records.  All other agency employees’ emails are viewed as temporary and are saved for an appropriate period of time. We’re now using Capstone at the National Archives and will base our guidance on real-world experiences.

Since 2011, we have worked closely with the White House to require all agencies to adopt Capstone or a comparable approach for managing emails by 2016. Congress has also helped by passing new amendments to the Federal Records Act and the Presidential Records Act late last year to modernize these recordkeeping statutes. Most notably, the law now requires officials who use a non-official email account (which only should be done as a last resort) to copy or forward those emails into their official account within 20 days, or be subject to disciplinary action.

The challenge of electronic recordkeeping is not unique to the federal government; universities, corporations, and privately owned businesses all wrestle with similar issues.  But the challenges are clear:  the volume of electronic records being created is enormous; providing access to these records is difficult and critical; and forecasting what will be “historically important” requires a blend of art and science. These are the challenges and opportunities that compel records and information management professionals. The National Archives is an essential resource to other agencies – we provide training, guidance, and structure for modernizing and reforming records management.  Federal agencies must follow our lead to ensure that our National Treasures – in paper and electronic form – are saved for future generations.


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Saying Thanks

Since 1985, the first week of May has been set aside to honor the men and women who serve our nation as Federal, state, county, and local government employees. It is also the time when I host the Archivist Awards ceremony at the National Archives to recognize the outstanding achievements of our staff in the past year.  We also recognize long term service—this year two folks with 45 years of service!   While the event is held in our College Park (MD) facility, this year senior executives traveled to eight of our facilities outside of the Washington area to celebrate with award recipients.  If cloning were possible, I would have been at all of our sites!

In his 2015 Pubic Service Recognition Week Proclamation, President Obama said:

“A Government of, by, and for the people is sustained only through hard work and extraordinary sacrifice of millions of citizens willing to serve the country they love.  From the moment an early band of patriots first came together to secure the blessings of liberty for all, public servants have worked to create a more perfect Union.  Today—in every city and every town—American can proudly carry forward this tradition of service, which has built our Nation and strengthened its promise.  This week, we recognize all those who dedicate their lives to this noble pursuit, and we celebrate the tremendous difference they make every day.”

I believe every week is Public Service Recognition Week, and each year I look forward to this ceremony when I get to personally thank those who have accomplished so much. Check out the range of activities in the Archivist’s Awards Program.  I am fortunate to work with the most dedicated group of people who take tremendous pride in the work they do.  And I take tremendous pride in them.

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What’s New in the National Archives Catalog: WWI Photographs

The National Archives recently embarked upon a large scale digitization project, focused on photographic and moving image records related to World War I and World War II. These public domain records are being digitized through a gift to the National Archives Trust Fund with the goal of making them more accessible for everyone to use, from teachers and local community groups, to museums and filmmakers.

Recently digitized and now available in our online catalog is a fascinating series of World War I photographs, the American Unofficial Collection of World War I Photographs, 1917-1918.

This series contains photographs obtained from the U.S. Army Signal Corps, Federal and State government agencies, as well as private sources, such as the American Red Cross and the Central News and Photo Service. The photos depict the unity of the nation and how overwhelming the war effort was, including pictures of public gatherings, peace demonstrations, parades, and activities of libraries, hospitals and first aid stations.

Some highlights include:

Albert Sterner painting war posters for the Government. National Archives Identifier 533471
Albert Sterner painting war posters for the government

Returning from a U-Boat Scouting Party. National Archives Identifier 533474
Returning from a U-Boat Scouting Party.

African-American regiment arrives home from France. New York’s famous 369th (old 15th) Infantry troops arrive in Hoboken, NJ. National Archives Identifier 533528
African-American regiment arrives home from France

Airplanes-Radio equipment- This is what an airman wears when he used the wireless telephone. National Archives Identifier 17341083
Airplanes-Radio equipment- This is what an airman wears when he used the wireless telephone.

Parade of Famous 369th Infantry on Fifth Avenue New York City. Colonel “Bill” Hayward’s famous “Hell Fighters” of the 369th Infantry march by crowds at the New York Public Library 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue. National Archives Identifier 533495
Parade of Famous 369th Infantry on Fifth Avenue New York City


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Thomas Jefferson Prize for Founders Online

On Saturday, wearing my Chair of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission hat, I accepted the Thomas Jefferson Prize from the Society for History in the Federal Government for the NHPRC in creating Founders Online. This is a particularly meaningful award because of the caliber of the professional community represented among the Society. There was great joy in “my house” when we received the good news!

In accepting the award on behalf of NHPRC, I said:

As the steward of Federal Government records, the National Archives has provided leadership in the archives and records management field for over 75 years. As far back as 1939, the American Archivist summed up the central challenge: “Just as librarians promote the use of books, and as teachers defend before the public the value of education, so archivists have as part of their duty to give stimulus and guidance to the use of archives, and to their use not by the few but by the many.”

I take that as our biggest challenge and opportunity. How do we ensure that as many people as possible can find and use the historical records held not only by the National Archives but by the nation’s archives?

One way is to continue opening our doors to the public. Every day I am lucky to witness the crowds of people in the Rotunda of the National Archives lined up to see the Charters of Freedom and other documents. More than 9,000 people, for example, came by to see the Emancipation Proclamation on the 150th anniversary of its signing. And all across the country in our many facilities, ordinary citizens get to examine original records in their family history journeys, researchers use originals to track down evidence, and hold our government accountable for its actions.

But what about the many who cannot come to Washington, DC or who are searching for records far from home?

In a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal, Walter Isaacson describes the “tingling sensation” people feel in the company of the original documents, but he also describes the power of providing access to the many through digitization and online publishing “when millions of curious people, with new technologies in hand, get to dive into the papers of historical figures.” And he then he holds up our Founders Online as a model for thinking about the whole question of access.

Founders Online really is a remarkable achievement built out of the tireless work of many. From the print publication of the very first volume of the Papers of Thomas Jefferson to decades of collecting, transcribing, annotating and publishing the papers of Franklin, Washington, Adams, Hamilton, and Madison. The print editions alone make access happen.

But through the leadership of our National Historical Publications and Records Commission and with our partners at the Rotunda project at the University of Virginia, we realized that not only could we broaden the audience for these records by making them freely available online, we could also improve and deepen that use through the ability to search across the papers of six Founders, including early access to currently unpublished letters.

The hybrid result is this massive database—currently at 167,000 separate documents—that changed fundamentally how people can find and use these historical records. Gone are the days when a search might take hours—or days or weeks—across multi-volume sets and indexes. Now scholars and students and lawyers and genealogists and enthusiasts for the history of federal government, now faceted searches pull up results in the blink of an eye. Speed and accuracy increased, and the capacity for analysis has improved.

And we are seeing great results. Since its launch in June 2013, over 1 million people have visited Founders Online. We regularly get emails from researchers excited by the results and engaged in improving the site.

The White House has featured the site twice on its blog since the launch, and the site is regularly cited on Facebook, twitter, and other social media. National Journal used the site to identify Thomas Jefferson’s activities as a brewer of beer. The New York Times’ Art and Culture blog announced the site with the headline: “Founding Fathers Go Electric.”

But here’s what really excites me. Educators of all kinds at all levels are using Founders Online in the classroom. University of Virginia historian Peter Onuf used Founders Online last spring to teach his first massive, open online course (MOOC) entitled, “The Age of Jefferson,” attended by several thousand participants. And one high school history teacher writes, “This resource is breathtaking in its scope and value. I already have students accessing it for their class projects. It defies description. Powerful, powerful, resource.”

The education staff at the National Archives has linked the material to facsimiles on our www.DocsTeach.org site for teachers. The National Endowment for the Humanities includes it on its EDSITEment webpages. The National Humanities Center in Research Triangle, NC offers faculty webinars and interactive lesson plans using this new resource exclusively. Monticello also uses Founders Online for some of its online lesson plans.

At least one course at Smith College requires students to investigate Founders Online. The site is also on the reading list for courses at George Mason, Brandeis, Furman, and more.

Scholars are beginning to make use of the site. “Citations have appeared in The American Historical Review, Constitutional Commentary, and The Journal of Church and State, among other journals.

New books that use Founders Online include The True Geography of Our Country: Jefferson’s Cartographic Vision (UVA Press), Thomas Jefferson’s Philosophy of Education: A Utopian Dream (Routledge), and Madison’s Gift: Five Partnerships That Built America (Simon and Schuster). Scholars such as Ron Chernow, author of bios of Washington and Hamilton and Jill Lepore on Benjamin Franklin’s sister Jane have spoken out about the value of combining the “tingling sensation” of seeing the original documents but also of the enhancements of online access.

I, like Walter Isaacson, “…hope that archives will remain inspiring places to visit and to meet people with like-minded passions. They can blend the virtual world and physical space to become 21st-century museums for the mind.”

With more than 12 billion pieces of paper and 42 million photographs—and a goal of digitizing everything—the National Archives will long blend the physical and virtual worlds. And I am also convinced that “tingling sensation” that can be achieved in seeing for the first time a piece of history through Founders Online.

I’ll close with a well known citation from Mr. Jefferson. In a 1791 letter to the editor for the first collection of the nation’s historical records, Jefferson wrote, “Let us save what remains; not by vaults and locks which fence them from the public eye and use . . . . but by such multiplication of copies, as shall place them beyond the reach of accident.”

Jefferson, and the other Founders of the nation, readily understood that the value of historical records lies not primarily in the paper artifacts, but in the ideas embodied within the words, and the public’s ability to understand and use those records. It is those ideas that give us that tingling sensation in the museums for the mind.

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What’s New in the National Archives Catalog: Photographs from the Battle of the Bulge

The National Archives’ Strategic Plan includes the bold initiative to digitize our analog records and make them available for online public access.

Our new digitization strategy outlines the many approaches we will use to achieve this goal, and I am proud share with you the results of some of our recent digitization work.

Recently digitized by staff in the National Archives Still Picture Branch, these stunning color photographs from the Battle of the Bulge were taken by the U.S. Army Signal Corps in St. Vith, Belgium. The photos depict the wreckage in St. Vith in the days after units of the 7th Armored Division liberated the town in January, 1945.

Wreckage in St. Vith Belgium
Wreckage in St. Vith, Belgium. National Archives Identifier 16730732

Snowsuited Soldiers Walk through the Snow Covered Streets of St. Vith, Belgium
Snowsuited Soldiers Walk through the Snow Covered Streets of St. Vith, Belgium. National Archives Identifier 16730733


American Soldiers Man a Dug-In Mortar Emplacement near St. Vith, Belgium
American Soldiers Man a Dug-In Mortar Emplacement near St. Vith, Belgium. National Archives Identifier 16730734

M-4 Sherman Tanks Lined up in a Snow Covered Field, near St. Vith, Belgium
M-4 Sherman Tanks Lined up in a Snow Covered Field, near St. Vith, Belgium. National Archives Identifier 16730735

Yanks Trudge through Snow from Humpange,Belgium to St. Vith

Yanks Trudge through Snow from Humpange,Belgium to St. Vith. National Archives Identifier 16730736

I will be featuring more digitization projects in upcoming blog posts.

More photos from the Battle of the Bulge are featured on Today’s Document Tumblr, and you can read more about “The Bloodiest Battle” in Prologue Magazine.

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Participate in the #1000pages Transcription Challenge

Calling all history enthusiasts and citizen archivists! Participate in the Transcription Challenge this week and help us meet — and surpass! — our goal of transcribing more than 1000 pages.

Join us in celebrating Sunshine Week and transcribe records in our new National Archives Catalog. We’ll be tracking our progress every day this week, so help us get to 1000 pages by Monday, March 23.
#1000pages graphic
Visit the Transcription Challenge webpage for more information. Use the hashtag #1000pages and tweet us @USNatArchives. Share with us what you discover in the records.

We have millions of pages of handwritten and typed documents that are waiting for you. Check out all of our Transcription Missions, or search for your favorite records.

You could work on transcribing more than 100 pages of the widow’s pension file for Harriet Tubman Davis or use your skills to read the difficult handwriting in the Papers of the Continental Congress.

Deposition of John Robins Regarding Hostilities at Lexington.
Transcribe this record

You can transcribe any record in the catalog by using the “View/Add Contributions” button underneath the digitized records. You’ll need to create a login to transcribe.

Since it’s Sunshine Week, it’s a great time to work on transcribing declassified records we have online.  You’ll see a classification and declassification markings, along with evidence of important historical events.  You can help transcribe National Security Decision Directives (NSDDs), like the image below:

Space Policy document
NSDD 42 National Space Policy, 7/4/1982.
Transcribe this record.

Transcribing is fun, but also an important open government activity.  Celebrate Sunshine Week with the National Archives and help us get to #1000pages!

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What have you found in Founders Online?

Founders Online, a tool for seamless searching across the papers of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton, launched in 2013. Since then, the tool has grown to a fully searchable online database of over 165,000 documents, including thousands of documents that have not yet appeared in the published volumes.

The site has had nearly 750,000 unique visitors—an average of over 42,000 people each month.

We continue to hear remarkable stories about how researchers are using the site and the surprising items they’ve found. Here are some unique uses of the content found on Founders Online:

A Hamilton Oath of Allegiance FO

  • Gates Thomas, a composer and associate professor at Berklee College of Music, has written a cantata based on George Washington’s Revolutionary War letters found in Founders Online. You can hear the cantata in this “With Good Reason” radio broadcast at about the 26:00 mark.

 What have you found in Founders Online?

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A Christmas Memory

One of the benefits of starting my library and archives life as a shelver in the Humanities Library at MIT was exposure to some great writers.  As an employee I took advantage of my borrowing privileges and went on a literary journey that set the foundation for my passion for reading to this day.  One of the authors I discovered was Truman Capote and his short story, A Christmas Memory, is an annual “must read” for me at this time of year.


A very autobiographical tale set in the American South of the 1930s tells the story of a boy named Buddy living with poor relatives, including an eccentric cousin, Sook, who is his best friend.  Buddy and Sook collect pecans and buy whiskey with pennies saved to bake fruitcakes to send to people they have met, or not, including Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.  In the days leading up to Christmas they make decorations and craft gifts for each other in secret.  On Christmas morning they discover they have each made kites and head for a meadow to test their gifts.  This is the scene which has stuck with me over the years.

“Satisfied, sun-warmed, we sprawl in the grass and peel Satsumas and watch our kites cavort… ‘My, how foolish I am!’ my friend cries, suddenly alert, like a woman remembering too late she has biscuits in the oven. ‘You know what I’ve always thought?’ she asks in a tone of discovery, and not smiling at me but at a point beyond. ‘I’ve always thought a body would have to be sick and dying before they saw the Lord.  And I imagined that when He came it would be like looking at the Baptist window:  pretty as colored glass with the sun pouring through, such shine you don’t know it’s getting dark.  And it’s been a comfort:  to think of that shine taking away all the spooky feeling.  But I’ll wager it never happens.  I’ll wager at the very end a body realizes the Lord has already shown Himself.  That things as they are’—her hand circles in a gesture that gathers clouds and kites and grass..—‘just what they’ve always seen, was seeing Him. As for me, I could leave the world with today in my eyes.’”

May your holidays be filled with joy and reflections of clouds and kites and sun-warmed grass and loved ones.

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