by Paul Hester
Imagine a single collection containing Matthew Brady's glass negatives of the Civil War. Timothy O'Sullivan's gold-toned albumen prints from geological surveys of the West in the 1860s and 1870s, surveys of the effects of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Dorothea Lange's negatives of the relocation of Americans of Japanese descent during World War Il, and photographs by Ansel Adams of national parks and monuments.
These and five million other still picture items are part of the National Archives in Washington. D.C. Overshadowed by the fame of the Library of Congress, the Archives was established in 1934 to document the activities of 125 Federal agencies. Records of the Bureau of Entomology and Plant Quarantine contain 2.825 items made between 1870 and 1946; the National Archives Collection of Foreign Records Seized contains 323,797 items including photographs by the official photographer of the Nationalist Socialist Party and photographs collected by Eva Braun pertaining to her personal and social life 1913-1944; the Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs includes portraits by Alexander Gardner of tribal delegations to the Federal Government in 1872; the Records of the Geological Survey contain photographs by William H. Jackson of Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons; The Records of the Office of War Information contains 206,100 items including women's fashions, the role of the Negro in industry and government, concentration camps, and the funeral of Franklin D. Roosevelt,
The beauty of this bounty is availability; anyone can order prints from the archives, with an
8x10 prim costing only $5.75. Many of the original materials are vintage, of course, and what you get is a prim From a copy negative
The major disadvantage of this collection is the difficulty of discovering what's there. A request for general information brings an order form, a list of 407 separate record groups with brief descriptions of their contents, and several brochures focusing on particular subjects such as the Civil War. the American West, Indians, and the American City.
A Researchers Guide to the National Archives begins. "As the central depository for the Nation's permanently valuable records, the National Archives serves as the nation's memory." Unfortunately, all the information I received was written: page after page of tantalizing description, but only one image on the cover of each leaflet. The Archives will search its files for a limited number of items if you send a specific request listing names, dates, and events. You are also offered the lists of professional researchers, Imagine being paid to scavenge these files!
Finally, there is no substitute for being there - (here in this case is the Still Picture Branch Research Room which is open Monday through Friday from 8:45am to 5pm, How are you going to know what's there until you see those hand-colored stereoscopic photographs of game birds, beaver, and ermine made in 1870 and part of the Records of the Fish and Wildlife Service?