From College Park to Edinburgh: 30 Days with the National Collection of Aerial Photography

Today’s post is written by Tom McAnear, a processing archivist in College Park. Tom is participating in the Archival Development Program, an in-house multi-year training course for all of NARA’s archivists.

As part of my Archival Development Program (ADP) training I recently completed a 30-day rotation in June at the National Collection of Aerial Photography (NCAP) in Edinburgh, Scotland. The rotation was meant to enhance training in organizational awareness, leadership, management, leveraging technology and collaboration.

Tom McAnear in the RCAHMS lobby.

As a technician in the National Archives and Records Administration’s (NARA) Cartographic and Architectural section from 2002 to 2007, I provided aerial photographic reference for services/assistance to researchers. During that period, I met Allan Williams, the curator of NCAP during his research at Archives II in College Park. I always wanted to visit the NCAP site and I took advantage of the opportunity offered by the ADP 30-day rotation requirement. NARA and NCAP share many common records for World War II aerial photography, but also have unique collections.

NCAP is a department of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS). Lesley Ferguson is the Head of Collections for RCAHMS. She was very welcoming and is open to the possibility of collaboration between RCAHMS/NCAP and the U.S. National Archives in the future. Overall authority over NCAP is through the National Archives – United Kingdom (NARA-UK). NCAP is one of the largest collections of aerial photography in the world. It is an invaluable resource for historical research across a wide range of disciplines. NCAP’s holdings date from the 1930’s and includes tens of millions of military intelligence photographs from around the world, now declassified and released by the UK Ministry of Defence. The archives range from the Second World War allied and Luftwaffe reconnaissance photographs to post-war aerial imagery up to the 1990s.

My specific purpose in training with NCAP was to gain an understanding of their aerial collections, the digitization of these records, and how the public uses and accesses the images. I worked to digitize and create geographical information for a collection of over 2,000 oblique aerial photographs taken by the U.S. Navy over Scotland during the 1960s. The U.S. Navy aerial photographs were taken to aid amphibious landing training and show the port of Leith undergoing reclamation and expansion; the entire coastline of the North-East highlands from Duncansby Head to Inverness; and the shoreline of the Solway Firth from Whithorn to Barrow-in-Furness. It is generally accepted by sources in the imagery intelligence field that U.S. Navy photography held by NCAP was to provide intelligence for beach landings by U.S. amphibious forces and to locate suitable beaches for such training. The authority for the sorties (flight paths flown) is given as Commander-in-Chief US Naval Forces in Europe (CINCUSNAVEUR) or the Naval Oceanographic Office (NAVOCEANO). The aerial oblique photographs are marked Secret: US/UK Eyes Only. The Secret classification is high for the typical cover obtained, although sorties were always classified with the highest classification of target covered, a single military installation, dockyard, or naval facility could have warranted such a classification. These records have now been declassified and are open to the public.

During my time with NCAP, I preserved and digitized over 2,000 images. I also center-pointed the images and worked with the Geographic Information System (GIS) specialist to make the images geographically searchable on the NCAP website. A center-point is created for each aerial image so that the location of the aerial photograph can be shown on the surface of the earth. This work involves lengthy study of the original sortie plots, which shows the flight path of the aircraft in the reconnaissance mission, and the orientation of the digital images so that north is uppermost. GIS is a system designed to capture, store, manipulate, analyze, manage, and present all types of geographically referenced data. Although the research room is still available to on-site visitors by appointment, most of the research on NCAP’s collection is now conducted online.

RCAHMS/NCAP Research Room

The highlight of my time at NCAP was working with the staff. NCAP is on the cutting edge of aerial photographic research, GIS applications, and access to its collection online. It was exciting to work with experienced staff such as Allan Williams, Andreas Bucholz, Kevin McLaren, Alan Potts, and Sam Martin. Allan Williams is the curator/director of the collection, who began digitizing the aerial collection 15 years ago when it was located at Keele University. Andreas Bucholz is the GIS specialist who is also developing various applications, Kevin McLaren is the reference archivist/website specialist, and Alan Potts is the electronics/computer/aircraft historian/photographic specialist. I also worked with Sam Martin who provided training in conservation, center-pointing, and was helpful overall. They were all friendly, professional, and made my time at NCAP a rewarding and enjoyable experience.

NCAP Aerial Research Area

In addition, Edinburgh is an international city with great restaurants, lots of culture, and friendly people. On weekends I hiked Ben Nevis and caught trout in the River Tweed as well as touring the city. I did not have to rent a car as I arranged for an apartment (online) that was three blocks from the office at RCAHMS/NCAP.

As someone who has worked with NARA’s aerial photography collection it was exciting to see how NCAP has gone from being a research room operation to an almost entirely online operation. In this time of budget cutbacks, NCAP is a case study in cost efficiency. They conduct their own conservation. They provide digitization of their own collection. They have created their own GIS database and website. A Scottish Parliamentarian who visited RCAHMS recently singled out NCAP as exemplifying the “kind of entrepreneurial spirit that will be necessary” in the coming years.

NARA is currently considering digitizing the aerial photographic collections. One of my purposes in my 30-day rotation was to inquire as to the possibility of NCAP’s providing consultation for NARA’s move into the 21st century for its own aerial photography collection in the face of a declining availability of funding. They are very interested in doing so. I am looking forward to the possibility of collaboration with NCAP in the future.

3 thoughts on “From College Park to Edinburgh: 30 Days with the National Collection of Aerial Photography

  1. Raheed, to update it looks like the digital lab is no longer considering digitization of even the aerial overlays.

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