From Norfolk to NARA: The Unexpected Journey of the Navy Shipyard Glass Plate Negatives

As the National Archives adapts to the world of digital records, it is easy to lose sight of the traditional challenges that have plagued archivists for generations. Over the last year, the Still Pictures branch has accessioned and processed a number of series that were originally captured on glass plates.  Such was the case with photographs from the Soo Locks (highlighted in an earlier blog post), as well as photographs from the Norfolk Naval Shipyard.

U.S. Navy Yard, Norfolk, Virginia. Nov. 17, 1917. C-2258-Dry dock No. 4 from west, Geo. Leary Construction Co. Local Identifier: 181-V-1361

Dating back to 1767, the Norfolk Naval Shipyard is the oldest in the United States.  Among other historic milestones, the shipyard is credited with building the first drydock in the United States, the first Navy battleship (the U.S.S. Texas), and the first Navy aircraft carrier (the U.S.S. Langley).  On the precipice of World War I, the shipyard commissioned additional drydocks in order to build and maintain the expanding naval fleet.  During the war years, employment at the shipyard surged to over 11,000 employees, many of whom helped build additional shops and facilities to accommodate the new workers and their families.

The photographs in this collection primarily depict the Norfolk Naval Shipyard during the turbulent years before, during, and after World War I.   Photographers captured these images on Gelatin Dry Plates, a common photographic process at the turn of the 20th century.  The process involved exposing a treated glass plate to light, which was later developed, fixed, and washed in a darkroom.  Norfolk photographers also made prints from the glass plate negatives, which were then placed in bound albums.  Individuals then arranged the original glass plates in specially designed wooden boxes for storage at Norfolk, where they remained for over a century.

It was not until 2011 that senior archivist, Nick Natanson, proposed that Norfolk Shipyard transfer photographs to NARA.  Nick arranged for then-branch-chief, Ed McCarter, and photo conservator, Sara Shpargel, to visit the Norfolk Naval Shipyard and decide if transfer was warranted. Out of nearly 300,000 photographs, Ed and Sara determined that approximately 3,000 photos on glass plates and their corresponding albums were in the most urgent need of conservation and recommended that they be transferred to NARA.

Before transferring the plates to NARA, the Norfolk Naval Shipyard audio visual office took on the task of digitizing the records. A Norfolk photographer used a camera-based system to shoot each glass plate negative, thus creating a digital scan, or as we call it, a reference copy.  Digitization helps to preserve the original photographs by limiting the amount the glass plates are handled, and also facilitates access to a wider audience that would otherwise not have access to the records.

The next phase of the project was getting the albums, the recently created scans, and the fragile glass plates from Norfolk, Virginia to the National Archives in College Park, Maryland.  This process was facilitated by the Defense Imagery Management Operations Center (DIMOC), the agency responsible for managing all visual information for the Department of Defense and U.S. military activities.  In November of 2015, five years after Nick’s initial discussions and 125 years after the first photo was taken, Julia Hickey, an archivist at DIMOC, drove the records from Norfolk to NARA.

Norfolk Navy Yard Negative Delivery; (left to right) Richard Green, Archivist, Julia Hickey, Defense Imagery Management Operations Center (DIMOC) Archivist, Elizabeth Forston, Archivist, and William Wade, Supervisory Archivist, unload glass plate negatives and image log books

Once the records arrived at NARA, staff undertook the task of processing the multi-faceted collection.  The first step was to remove the glass plates from their beautifully antique, yet non-archival, wooden boxes and rehouse them into specially created archival shelving units.  Archivists then gave each plate, print, and scan a National Archives Identifier, and recorded that information with the agency-provided caption in a spreadsheet.  Archivists then rehoused the prints into archival boxes and uploaded the digital scans into the Electronic Records Archives for preservation.  Lastly, the series was described and uploaded to the National Archives Catalog.*

Between the time photographers first captured these images and the time they appeared on the National Archives Catalog, these photographs faced deterioration, changed ownership, and tested the limits of government bureaucracy.   Through an outstanding display of inter-agency cooperation, the photographs from the Norfolk Naval Shipyard are now available to the public and will be preserved at the National Archives for generations to come.

*The vast majority of the collection is now available to view on the National Archives Catalog.  As a preservation measure the Still Photos Branch asks that researchers use the digital version whenever possible, although prints and negatives may be available upon special request.

5 thoughts on “From Norfolk to NARA: The Unexpected Journey of the Navy Shipyard Glass Plate Negatives

  1. Nice article. The title of the blog is a bit misleading as the Norfolk Naval. shipyard is located in Portsmouth, Virginia.

Comments are closed.