Monday, July 14, 2008

On numbers

I send in many of the photos I find to Navsource as well as ships' organizations and survivors.

One of the things that confused the editors when I started working with them and confuses many people is what photo numbers truly mean, whether they start with 80-G, NYD, or are just a string like 1234-45. I received an e-mail today from a guy looking for the "80-G" number for a photo I had posted that was from Seattle NARA. While that might seem like a reasonable question, it just indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of the archival records, which is not a surprise as there are no "FAQs" out there for people to learn from. Consider this the beginning of one.

NARA (The National Archives And Records Administration) is charged with preserving US Governmental records. When an agency, such as the FBI, IRS, DOE, etc., is finished with records they turn it over to NARA for archiving. These records are organized into Record Groups; you can see the list of them here.

Concerning Naval records, there are several different ones; RG19, "Records of the Bureau of Ships;" RG24, "Records of the Bureau of Naval Personnel;" RG38, "Records of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations;" and so on and so forth. There is not one single "Navy" record group, and a researcher needs to know which ones to best target when looking for a particular theme of information.

By far the two most "popular" or referenced are Record Group 19 and Record Group 80. RG19 is the Bureau of ships and contains a high number of photos of ships following repairs and overhaul, and 80-G, a subset of RG80, is more of a hodgepodge, with some repair and overhaul photos but also a lot of operations and locations photos. You may also see photos with "NHC" in the title, but these are reference numbers for photos held by the Navy Historical Center.

It is possible for the same picture to have multiple ID numbers or none at all. For example, a RG19 photo may have been turned over to 80-G before the records were turned over as part of 19, and then from 80-G to NHC, and each would have their own number. Or, the photo could be part of a report in RG-181, "Records of Naval Districts and Shore Establishments" and thus have no official photo number. I once found some photos in the records of Hunter's Point Naval Shipyard that were from NHC... so these were records that were duplicates of NHC photos of official Navy photos... now being held by NARA in a regional archive. Confusing?

Some photos have captions on them with a number listed, something like "1234-45" or "NY9-1234-50." These numbers were assigned by the shipyard or base that the photos were taken and have no real use as a reference. They may be of some use in that the last portion equates to the year, and in the numbers that start with "NY," the shipyard can be determined, but the number itself is merely a sequential number and can tell no more than whether it was shot earlier in the year or later. In most cases there is no central collection of photos from a shipyard that can be accessed so these numbers are nothing more than a tease at this point.

There is the hope that over time more of these photos will turn up; there are unprocessed records in many of the archives that are waiting for NARA to have the resources to make them available, and then for a researcher to find them. But it's not a quick process.


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