Ten Years of NARA-NOAA Partnership

Today’s post was written by Gina Kim Perry, archivist in Digitization Archival Services at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

2022 marks ten years since the National Archives (NARA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) began their partnership to image select records from NARA and upload them to the NARA Catalog. The records imaged so far include select volumes of Navy logbooks (NAID 581208), Revenue Cutter and Coast Guard logbooks (NAID 585454), and Navy muster rolls (NAID 563603), all from NARA in Washington, DC; as well as Navy deck logs (NAID 594258) and Coast and Geodetic Survey logbooks (NAID 563391), both from NARA in College Park, MD. The total number of images produced as of March 2020, when the imaging work stopped because of COVID-19 restrictions, is 904,304 images – equivalent to almost 1.56 million archived pages – from 5,256 volumes and boxes.

Impact on Climate Science

The impetus for this collaboration came about when climate scientists discovered that ship logbooks contain up to 24 hourly weather records per day (see, for example, the weather data on the left page in Figure 1), including barometer readings, water and air temperature, and sometimes sea-ice conditions, which could be recovered and used to fill major gaps in existing weather data.1 However, it was not feasible to directly use those weather records because logbooks from the 19th and early 20th centuries contain mostly handwritten entries. Only human beings – no computers thus far – can read and understand varied and idiosyncratic handwriting.2 Ironically, it was by using computers, which enabled collaboration and crowdsourcing, that volunteers on the online platform oldweather.org have successfully undertaken the task of transcribing historical weather data and making them available in digital formats usable by climate scientists.

Open book with tables capturing stats on movement on one side, and a handwritten narrative of activity on the other.
Figure 1. Image No. 7 from Log of U.S.S. Albatross, 01/01/1894 – 06/30/1894 (NAID 7696700)

During the last ten years, these collaborative efforts among NARA, NOAA, and Old Weather volunteers have enabled about 1.5 million “new-to-science hourly weather records” to be extracted from logbooks and integrated into climate study models and reanalysis systems, thus improving our understanding of the Arctic and other global environments where past weather data had been sparse.3 In Figure 2 below, the ship positions (recovered primarily from U.S. Navy and Coast Guard logbooks) are shown in yellow and indicate where in the Northern Hemisphere the ships were traveling while recording historical weather observations on board.

Image of the globe showing north American continent with yellow lines and dots in the ocean to show ship positions.
Figure 2. View of Northern Hemisphere with Ship Positions Drawn from New-to-Science Marine-Meteorological and Sea-Ice Observations Recovered Primarily from U.S. Navy and Coast Guard Logbooks (Courtesy of NOAA)  

Evidentiary Value

It turns out that not only are digitized logbooks valuable as a source of large quantities of useful data not available anywhere else, as shown above, but occasionally even a single entry from a digitized page can also be of great value, as was the case with the U.S. Revenue Cutter BEAR, also known as the U.S.S. BEAR (AG-29). This historic ship had a long and illustrious service in both the Navy and the Coast Guard, in both World Wars, in several expeditions to the Antarctic, and in the Arctic expedition that rescued Lt. Greely and six other survivors, but was lost in a storm on March 19, 1963, near Cape Sable, Nova Scotia, while being towed to its new home in Philadelphia, PA.4

It was not until October 2021 that an unidentified wreck found in 2019 near Cape Sable was identified “with a reasonable degree of certainty” as the Revenue Cutter BEAR by a team of experts from NOAA, the Coast Guard, and other research partners.5 Before reaching that consensus, the team examined all relevant evidence, including an entry in the ship’s logs from May 8, 1944 (nine days before the ship was decommissioned), which stated that the ship’s engine and reduction gear assembly had been removed.6 You can see the actual wording in Figure 3 below in the entry for “16-20” (referring to the hours between 4:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.): “… 1605 Hoisted out main engine. 1650 Hoisted out reduction gear assembly.”

Single page of remarks sheet with typed remarks and signatures of ship officials.
Figure 3. Image 18 from Log of U.S.S. Bear (AG-29) – May 1944, Remarks Page for May 8, 1944 (NAID 7794815)

The fact that a research team examining the wreck could not find the ship’s engine on board or in its vicinity, and the fact that the May 8, 1944, logbook entry explained why the engine was missing, together offered important clues and, along with other evidence, helped the team reach its consensus finding.7 This example once again illustrates the value of the NARA-NOAA Partnership, since that partnership enabled a NOAA intern in 2014 to image the BEAR’s 1944 logs, which ended up playing an important evidentiary role seven years later in identifying the final resting place of the Revenue Cutter Bear.

Impact on Social History

Among the digitized records made possible by the NARA-NOAA Partnership is a set of Navy muster rolls of ships from the Civil War era (NAID 563603). These records, consisting of 45,671 pages from 548 volumes, were imaged by NOAA interns from 2018 to 2019 and are accessible from the NARA Catalog. Recent news about an innovative way to use those digitized muster rolls comes from Northumbria University, Newcastle, UK. A project titled “Civil War Bluejackets: Race, Class and Ethnicity in the United States Navy, 1861-1865”— which will begin in March 2022 and last until February 2025 – will focus on the social history of the era, especially on the lives and experiences of immigrant and African American sailors during the Civil War.8

A pilot project in 2020 analyzed a small set of the muster rolls to demonstrate the feasibility of a future large-scale project.9 Once fully launched, the project plans to transcribe, through crowdsourcing, all the Civil War Navy Muster rolls.10 The information gleaned from the rolls, such as name, age, and place of birth, date and place of enlistment, civilian occupation, and physical description, will then be connected to other records, such as pension files, “ ‘to provide a new and accessible history of the 118,000 or so common sailors who served in the Civil War for the Union …. 30 percent of whom were British or Irish, and 15 percent were African Americans.’ ”11 The ultimate goal of the project is to make these unique new findings easily accessible online for use by social historians and others researching family histories, especially African American genealogists.12  This project is yet another example of the importance of digital availability of and the reuse of NARA data in innovative and impactful ways.

The three examples in this post show that the digitized records from the ten years of the NARA-NOAA partnership have made an impact in more ways than one – whether it is climate science, social history, or a record’s evidentiary value – and we may still find other new and unexpected ways that these records will be used in the future. The partnership did “Make Access Happen” (NARA’s Strategic Goal 1) and let the benefits flow.

1. John Ewald, “NOAA, National Archives team up with citizen-scientists to reconstruct historical climate of the Arctic,” NOAA RESEARCH NEWS,October 24, 2012, https://research.noaa.gov/article/ArtMID/587/ArticleID/1437/NOAA-National-Archives-team-up-with-citizen-scientists-to-reconstruct-historical-climate-of-the-Arctic-.

2. “The Project,” Old Weather,accessed January 21, 2022, https://www.oldweather.org/about.html.

3. Rob Allan, et al., “Learning from the past to understand the future: historical records of change in the ocean,” Bulletin World Meteorological Organization, vol. 70, no. 1, 2021 (paragraph 19), https://public.wmo.int/en/resources/bulletin/learning-from-past-understand-future-historical-records-of-change-ocean.

4. “Searching for the U.S. Revenue Cutter Bear,” NOAA Ocean Exploration, accessed January 21, 2022, https://oceanexplorer.noaa.gov/explorations/19bear/background/mission-plan/mission-plan.html.

5. Brad Barr, “Searching for the U.S. Revenue Cutter Bear: Have We Found It?” NOAA Ocean Exploration, October 11, 2021, https://oceanexplorer.noaa.gov/explorations/21bear/features/found/found.html.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. “Research on US Civil War sailors to create a treasure-chest for genealogists and social historians,” Northumbia University Newcastle, December 1, 2021, https://www.northumbria.ac.uk/about-us/news-events/news/research-on-us-civil-war-sailors-to-create-a-treasure-chest-for-genealogists-and-social-historians/.

9. The Civil War Bluejackets Project, accessed January 21, 2022, https://civilwarbluejackets.com/.

10. “Big News for Civil War Bluejackets!” The Civil War Bluejackets Project (Blog), December 3, 2021, https://civilwarbluejackets.com/2021/12/03/big-news-for-civil-war-bluejackets/.

11. “Research on US Civil War sailors to create a treasure-chest for genealogists and social historians,” Northumbia University Newcastle, December 1, 2021 (quoting Professor David Gleeson from paragraphs 5 & 6), https://www.northumbria.ac.uk/about-us/news-events/news/research-on-us-civil-war-sailors-to-create-a-treasure-chest-for-genealogists-and-social-historians/.

12. Ibid.