The Record - January 1998

NARA Online

History Online: National Archives Brings Past to Life by Putting Photos, Documents on the Web

By Joe Bauman Jack Hillers squats in a clear spot in a grove of aspen and pine, diligentlycleaning a piece of glassthat he will use in makinga negative. It's incongruous to seesomething as delicate as glass in those hamlike hands. Packhorses wait behind one of his cameras, which is on a tripod and draped with the cloth that will keep sunlight out of his eyes when he aims the lens.

John K. Hillers at Aquarius Plateau, 1872

John K. Hillers at Aquarius Plateau, Utah Territory, 1872.

Scattered around him is equipment he used to lug his heavy gear to this vantage point: rope that bundled cameras to the horses, a chemical bottle with a funnel sticking out its mouth, trunks that carried glass plates, chemicals, filters, lenses.

Hillers is a burly guy. It's easy to see why Powell hired the Utahan to man the oars during his dangerous second trip down the Green and Colorado Rivers and through the Grand Canyon.

The official photographer was E.O. Beaman, but the team split up. Beaman took off on his own photographic trip to the Grand Canyon and the Hopi villages, and Hillers became the photographer by default. He ended up taking the bulk of the expedition's pictures ferocious rapids in the Colorado river, dignified portraits of Indians, Angel's Landing in what would become Zion National Park, narrows, settlements, cross-bedded sandstone, and sheer cliff walls.

He made a magnificent contribution to the art and history of early Utah. When you look at his photo on the computer screen, you see a Utahan transforming himself from a husky man whose main value was his musculature, into an artist with a camera.

This view of Hillers, and many other historic photographs that he took in the 1870s, are just a small part of a new offering that the National Archives and Records Administration is making available on the Internet.

In October, the National Archives put 5,300 documents many of them historic photographs on the Internet in digitized form. They are the first of approximately 120,000 that it will be releasing over the next year. Anywhere in the world, history buffs with computers can bring them up on their monitors.

Just aim your Web browser at the National Archives' main site:

Tell it to look for Utah, and activate the button that says "only descriptions linked to digital copies." Then click the button at the bottom of the page that offers to display results.

The results are a cornucopia of images, 417 "hits," everything from engravings made from expedition reports dating to 1869 to photographs of the great discoveries of John Wesley Powell's explorations on the Green and Colorado Rivers, to discoveries on the high plateaus of southern Utah, right up to 1972 photos of Lake Powell.

Click on a highlighted text, and the caption says "Staff of the Daily Reporter in front of their office. Corinne, Box Elder Co., Utah Terr. By William H. Jackson, 1869."

And there they are. The newspaper office was little more than a tent over a wooden frame. Even then, journalism was one of the few callings where women could compete with men, and you wonder who the woman is in the tent's doorway. She has a confident stance, with male reporters and editors on either side was she a proofreader? A reporter?

All we know is that she looks vital and determined in her apron. She stands with a hand on her hips, coolly surveying the camera.

It was a rough time, when the Transcontinental Railroad was completed at Promontory. The camp named Corinne was called "hell on earth." For a time it was one of the biggest towns in Utah, and it certainly was the wildest filled with railroad workers, tradesmen out for a fast buck, gamblers, saloons.

Those days live again in the National Archives offerings. Other images connected to the completion of the railroad are a shot of Salt Lake City in 1869; stores at Corinne; and the locomotives Jupiter and 119, mobbed by a crowd, edging toward each other for the first time at Promontory.

"There are actually two pieces to the project," said Debora Wall, an archives specialist with the National Archives. "The first is building an online catalog. The second is digitizing documents and making them available through the catalog."

The Archives houses billions of documents, from the Declaration of Independence to movies and tape recordings. To winnow these down to 120,000 to place on the Internet, it had to go through what Wall said was a "a fairly democratic selection process."

Documents that are in huge demand, like the photo of Elvis Presley meeting President Nixon, are offered. But so are many that are of great historical importance, as well as some that give a good cross-section of the country. "We're trying to get as broad a representation as possible, " she said.

Who decided to put the Hillers self-portrait on the Internet instead of some other photo?

Archivists sent out a call to the entire agency, which is scattered in branch offices throughout the United States. They "said everybody should just propose the most interesting documents they had. Then we had a selection committee with 15 staff members who are considered subject area experts. They voted on the first 50,000 documents,"she said.

Wall was a member of the committee, and she laughed when she admitted there was a lot of argument about some of the decisions. She added,"It was the best thing I've had to do at work. It was such fun."

Now that the first 50,000 documents are in the works, the committee will meet again and look into gaps in its coverage.

"There are literally billions of pieces of paper here, records produced by the Federal Government during the course of its history," said Dan Jansen, manager of he National Archives' digitizing project. By "here" he meant the Archives' new high-tech office in College Park, MD. More records are in the Washington, DC, headquarters, regional offices and presidential libraries.

"The project that I'm managing seeks to identify the significant documents in all of those collections and scan them and put them up on the Internet...Every month there will be thousands more put in there."

The effort will continue at least until February 1999. New material will find its way onto the Internet on the first Monday of every month.

Electronic preservationists scan directly from the original document whenever possible, and the master files are extremely high-quality. However, in the interest of rapid loading for Internet users, they are not tremendously detailed in the versions available online.

"The project doesn't just pursue photographs," Jansen added. All sorts of records are included, from.handwritten documents, maps, photos, and audio records to movie clips.

One of the first audio records to go online is an interview with Joe Salling, 110 years old when the tape-recording was made at his home in Slant, VA. He was one of the last surviving Confederate veterans. Anyone with an Internet hookup can hear him sing an early version of "The Yellow Rose of Texas."

Joe Bauman is a Staff Writer for the Deseret News, Salt Lake City, Utah. This article is reprinted with permission.