From Analog to Digital

When I first started working with the Still Picture Processing Team in College Park, MD , my first three projects dealt with gelatin dry plate glass negatives, albumen cartes-de-visite and Kodachrome film.    Even though we will still be accessioning analog photography for years to come and dealing with the issues that come with that (most notably millions of analog negatives from NASA’s Shuttle Program), times have certainly changed.  Over the past decade, we have seen agencies fully transition to the use of digital photography.  Many accessions whose coverage dates range from the early to mid-2000s, are a mix of analog and digital. Most accessions dating from 2005 to the present are completely digital.  Just like prints, negatives and transparencies are intellectually all photographs, at their core digital images are just photographs in a different physical form.  Digital records certainly provide new processing and preservation issues, with shorter schedule disposition periods and ongoing technology changes, but it also provides us with an opportunity to reach a broader researcher community by providing accessible and usable images online.  We see the Online Public Access (OPA) system as our mechanism to provide access to these records, sort of like an online research room.

During the last three years, we have accessioned over 700,000 digital photos, half of which have been ingested into the Electronic Records Archives (ERA) with the other half in the process of being ingested. Approximately 105,000 of these images are currently available through ARC and OPA with the rest available in the near future.  Agencies currently represented in our online holdings include the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of Education, Department of Energy (DOE), Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and  Department of the Interior (DOI).


Photograph No. 311-MAD-19200; “Neighborhoods and roadways throughout the area remain flooded as a result of Hurricane Katrina,” New Orleans, LA, Sept. 8, 2005; Photograph by Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA; Records of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Record Group 311; National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD.


Photograph No. 255-MG-S65-30430; “Astronaut Edward H. White II, pilot for the Gemini-Titan 4 space flight, floats in zero gravity of space over southern California,” June 3, 1965; Records of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Record Group 255; National Archives at College Park, MD.


Photograph No. 207-DP-8847-DSC_0757; “Mitt Romney viewing a portrait of his father, George Romney, with HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson,” May 3, 2004; Records of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Record Group 207, National Archives at College Park, MD.

Digital holdings for several other agencies will be represented in the near future, including the Department of Defense, Department of State, Department of Commerce as well as additional images for the EPA, HUD and Interior.


Photograph No. 330-CFD-DM-SD-02-03880; “The Pentagon in flames moments after a hijacked jetliner crashed into building at approximately 0930 on September 11, 2001”; Photo by CPL Jason Ingersoll, USMC; Records of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Record Group 330; National Archives at College Park, MD.


Photograph No. 412-APD-673-2010-06-04_GrandIsle_71; “Oil from BP Spill coats beach and jetty at Grand Isle State Park, LA,” June 4, 2010; USEPA photo by Eric Vance; Records of the Environmental Protection Agency, Record Group 412; National Archives at College Park, MD.


Photograph No. 59-CF-DS-11872A-04_DSC_0018; “Actress Angelina Jolie with State Secretary Colin Powell at a reception in the Harry S. Truman Building. The actress was attending the Secretary’s Open Forum session on the documentary film investigating Southeast Asia sex trafficking, “Trading Women.”,” May 25, 2004; Photo by Ann Thomas; Records of the Department of State, Record Group 59; National Archives at College Park, MD.

One way that we will use this blog is to announce when new images are now available online or through our research room.  This not only goes for born-digital, but also analog images and in some cases, digital surrogates created from original analog material.

7 thoughts on “From Analog to Digital

  1. Good question. Even though not precise, dates can still be a good indicator. You can feel pretty confident in saying the Gemini image is a scan. NASA actually sent the original film with digitized copies. Where it gets difficult is dealing with digital images from the mid-1990s to early 2000s. Many agencies have transferred original analog 35mm negatives and digital copies that were most likely produced when the film was processed. You mix those in with born-digital images produced around the same time period and it can be tough to make a distinction. The first place to look is in the ARC series description. Several fields, like General Note and Copy Status should give you an idea if the digital copies available are all born-digital, all digital surrogates or half and half. Some of the information given in the item level descriptions for particular images might also give an indication. Another option would be to save the image from ARC or OPA to your computer and open it up in an image viewing software that allows you to view the embedded technical metadata.

  2. This blog is a nice way to call attention to the interesting things you’re releasing. I like the inline photos.

    Good idea!

  3. It’s good to see Special Media getting the attention it deserves. Thanks for putting us up there Billy!

  4. Great post Billy. The photos are great examples of our diverse holdings. As I thought about the shorter disposition times and the number of agencies producing photos, I wondered if there is a Federal “community” that is collaborating with NARA to address the issues of digital photo preservation and access.

    1. I think the key is for us to be involved in the entire lifecycle of the records and not wait until it’s time to transfer. I’ve discovered that most agency photographers are looking for guidance on how to create, store and preserve their holdings before transfer. We certainly have been asked to comment on current and future procedures for the creation of born-digital and scanned images. The best practice for their immediate needs as an agency is in many cases what is best for us in the long run. I think the most difficulty has been in dealing with those first transfers that might have been building up for 10 years or more. We had a few transfers recently that contained some media and formats considered at-risk, but not completely obsolete, so we were able to find ways to deal with them. More frequent transfers should help make sure photos are preserved, but as an agency we will need to continue to provide the appropriate resources to deal with the dramatic rise in our digital image holdings. It took 50 years for us to reach 14 million analog images in the Still Picture Unit, but we’ll reach 10 million digital images in approximately 10 years.

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