April 6 marks the 100th anniversary of the United States’ entry into World War I, as well as the culmination of a massive digitization project from the National Archives. Through a generous donation made by an anonymous donor, the National Archives was able to digitize over 110,000 photographs and nearly 300 reels of film related to the “Great War.”
The vast majority of photographs selected for digitization came from two series: the American Unofficial Collection of World War I Photographs (165-WW) and the Photographs of American Military Activities (111-SC).* Both series of photographs document American activity on the home front and on the battlefield during the war years.
The “American Unofficial Collection of World War I Photographs” (165-WW) was originally maintained by the Committee on Public Information (CPI). During WWI, the CPI collected photographs from private photographers and federal agencies in order to sway public opinion in favor of the war. Following the war, the CPI disbanded and the War Department’s Historical Branch obtained custody of the photographs. The War Department later transferred these photos, among others, to the National Archives in the early 1940s. Prior to this digitization project, these images were only available to researchers via microfiche in the Still Photos research room.
The “Photographs of American Military Activities” (111-SC) were primarily taken or collected by the Army Signal Corps. Although this digitization project has focused on images related to World War I, the Army Signal Corps series includes nearly 1 million images covering everything from the French and Indian War through Vietnam. Photographs from this series have long been some of the most often requested and widely disseminated images in our holdings.
By digitizing these records, citizens all over the world can now access films and photos related to WWI without traveling to the National Archives research room. Additionally, we hope that enhanced metadata will allow researchers to search for records in innovative ways, and make new connections that were not possible in the traditional analog-world. Scanning these records will also limit the amount that the original photographs are handled, ensuring their preservation for years to come.**
In addition to the images in this blog, the Unwritten Record has highlighted many of these re-discovered gems over the past year. Staff has continually stumbled upon weird, inspiring, and somber images of American life a century ago. The National Archives has gathered these photographs, as well as many other records, educational programs, and articles in a recently created, World War I Portal.
*In addition to the two series described above, this digitization project also included two smaller series related to WWI. They are: German Military Activities and Personnel, 1917-1918 (165-GB), and British Photographs of WWI, 1914-1918 (165-BO), which are now available in the National Archives Catalog.
**Access to the originals may still be granted in special circumstances.