Friday, May 30, 2008


Above is what I consider the sign of a good day's research. Your mileage may vary; but in the archives I typically hang out it, this means that I've found records that no one else has thought to scan in yet, or at least not at that particular archives.

The records that I typically go through are from the Second World War. They were kept in filing cabinets for a while, then moved to boxes, stored, and finally turned over to the national archives. As they have time and money the archivists will go through and process these records, but the vast majority sit unprocessed, as they were turned over.

That includes ever staple, paper clip, binding strap, brad, red tape, what have you, that the government saw fit to use to keep the records together. Wartime fasteners were cheap metal, not stainless, and the records were not stored in climate-controlled facilities for the majority of their lives. Consequently the staples are rusted, the brads corroded, and generally this is not the best thing for the records.

So the archivists at the branches I've researched at generally support the removal of these fasteners in records they haven't processed in order to at least slow the affect they have on the records. I've heard recently that NARA College Park has a section with a new manager who does not believe in the removal of these parts; feels it destroys the integrity of the records. Perhaps it makes it more difficult for the researcher to determine which belongs with what, but I've never seen records where I couldn't figure it out by just looking it over for a minute.

Generally the archivists want to remove these fasteners for you; few people really consider the true value of a sheet of paper when they pull a staple out. While that piece of onion skin with a routing slip might just be a piece of paper, it may also be the last record in existence of the details of an event, and that makes it a national treasure.

But, in some cases if you build up enough trust with an archivist they might trust you with one of the micro spatulas they use to remove staples. In my case, with all of the sheet metal bending experience I had as an aircraft mechanic I pull the staples out very cleanly. In fact, there was an assistant at one of the branches that I specifically did not get to pull staples for me after I saw how ham-handed he was the first time I asked.

The above pile was amassed after about 3-4 hours of research in Naval Records at the Archives in San Bruno, California. Many of the pieces of paper they were removed from bore rust stains or were torn from years of being held by a paper clip. It's satisfying to me to both scan those images and turn them into web documents so that they don't just sit out-of-sight in a box as well as help with the preservation of them so that a future archivist wanting to answer questions might find them in usable form.

The first document I posted from San Bruno was USS Intrepid - Handling after damage but I've started on the second; USS San Francisco Gunfire Damage - Battle of Guadalcanal, November 13, 1942. It's nowhere near done and I don't recommend clicking on any of the links yet, but I offer it as a sneak preview and as proof that yes, I do work on things besides the odd post here and there!.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

In Memorium

I've converted the first document from my research trip to San Bruno, a report by the ship's captain on efforts to steer USS Intrepid after a torpedo hit took out her rudder. I pushed this one to the top of the list as I wanted to get this one out in time for Memorial Day for a couple of reasons. Five of her crew were killed and six were missing following this torpedo hit, but also I lost a good friend this month; Wally Bigelow. Wally built a model of the Intrepid a couple of years ago that was well researched and well built. Wally told me that he had chosen the subject in order to build something a little different, but the project grew and I think he identified with the ship; he even named his company "Intrepid Hobbies."

Wally did a lot of good things for the ship model hobby, even though he was a quiet guy living in a medium sized town. Emil Minerich from Skyway Model and I went to visit him on what turned out to be the day before he died from cancer.

Despite the pain he was in from the cancer, he was in decent spirits. He was not done fighting, but he was at peace with whatever happened. His funeral was last Saturday, the day before I flew out for the trip; I had wanted to attend but had already committed myself to helping my wife with a model horse show that otherwise would have about drove her postal. From what I heard it was well attended, perhaps doubling for a couple of hours the population of the town it was held in.

Wally, we will miss you. My posting of this Intrepid document is in your memory, and to that of the six crew members lost that day when a torpedo smashed into their ship and ripped their lives away suddenly.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Final Tally

5 days, 1,088 images, 11.2 gigs. Down to the wire yet again... finished the last box three minutes after the official closing time and saved about 25 images afterwards sitting in Randy's pickup.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Improvisation Part II

Short post tonight, Randy Short came in and we spent most of the night gabbing about camouflage and what we found today. Got a lot of camouflage design sheets uncovered and photographed, ran into another situation where we needed to improvise.

The design sheets are way too big to scan in, so the easiest way to grab copies is with a good digital camera. San Bruno has a camera stand, but we ran into problems with it right away; it didn't go up high enough to get all of the larger ones in-frame, and there was no supplemental lighting. This was a problem as the room is fairly dark and they don't allow you to use flash as it is disturbing to other researchers.

So this is what we did:

We took over the table, grabbed a couple of magnifying glasses with supplemental lighting, and used a step-stool so I could stand up above the table enough to get the larger ones in frame.

Here's a preview of something we found:

This is *part* of the master pattern for 20L. Painted in the original colors.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Down to the Wire

The above picture was shot about 5:35 Pacific time, just outside the front door of the archives, which closed at 5:30 PM. One of the things that will often happen at the end of the day or the trip is that you're either running behind or trying to fit one last folder in. Happened today, I came across CA-38 San Francisco's damage report for the Naval Battle near Guadalcanal and started scanning it in.

As I mentioned before, I try and decrease the cycle time of each scan, and one of the impediments is that whenever I first start the scanner software to scan into Photoshop, it has to take 30 seconds or so to calibrate the scanner. Solution: decrease the number of times you first start that software. So I typically will scan 10-20 images and then dump out and save them.

How does this digression tie into "down to the wire? Well, some other researcher or volunteer was moving a chair around the research room this afternoon and hooked my scanner's power cord with the leg, yanking it right out. The scanning software dropped, and Photoshop crashed... I had about nine images and was halfway through the next one, and had to restart photoshop and start back from scratch. That ate up enough time that I wasn't going to comfortably finish San Francisco's report, which was the last one in the box, and I really wanted to be done with that box!

So I just kept scanning, and eventually wound up with about 25 images, the last one scanned in a minute or so before closing. I then walked out the door and saved each one. Here's a preview of what I was scanning at the end of the day:

Plate II, "Outboard Profile Showing Hits"

That brings us to the next topic, Improvising.

The above image is of a sheet of paper that measures some 40 by 13 inches. You are not going to find many scanners that can handle that. So, what we do is scan it in sections and digitally stitch them back together in photoshop. I've done this before with the plates from Structural Repairs in Forward Areas During World War II and have learned a couple of things:

  • Keep the sheets flat; if they ripple at all it may cause lines to be slightly different in location from one section to another

  • Make sure that the sheet is oriented exactly the same on each section; having to experiment with rotating 300dpi by a fraction of a degree is a tedious PITA, especially if you didn't keep the paper flat and line up one area only to find that another is misaligned.

  • So, how does one align a sheet of paper that is taller then the scanner's plate? We improvise!

    I used the top edge of the scanner to line up the top border,a nd made sure that each section was firmly pressed against it so that they all lined up the same. I then Placed a manila folder down over the sheet to keep it flat while I carefully lowered the cover, and voila, perfect scans on the top edge.

    The bottom edge was a little more difficult though, as the scanner has a dead area where there is clear plate, but no scanning happens. So I needed something rectangular to offset the paper on the bottom edge and yet keep it the same. Can you guess what I used?

    The item at the bottom of the screen is the key card for my hotel room. ;)

    By the way, the slightly darker tone on the top is another reason I used the manila folder; my current scanner has a black plastic cover, which is good for some things, bad for others. I like the richer color tones I get with a white backing, so I used a bright white folder as a backing. Since the top is going to be cropped out anyway I wasn't as concerned with covering the whole back.

    Side Projects

    When you scan in color, or when your scanner wants to calibrate itself every frickin' time you start up another round, you are frequently left with spare time. You can play solitaire... lord knows I've about beat it to death, but in a case like this where I don't have a lot of time on-site, it's a good opportunity to do some other projects. I tend to take notes on the records as I'm scanning, or flip ahead a bit and identify the next set of documents I might be interested in. Today I started into the finding aids, large binders that list, to a certain extent, what the archives holds. I also started OCRing an 88-page report on Franklin's battle damage in WWII. Happy to say I got 4 pages in, but this will probably be one I peck at for a little while.

    Tuesday, May 20, 2008

    Scale of work

    Most people haven't spent any time at archives, and those that do might not talk to the archivists about their jobs and the records they safeguard. Governmental agencies are supposed to turn their records over to NARA, but that doesn't mean that when (if) they do, they're in any sort of order, or have any index that can be used to find a particular document.

    I'm lucky in that the Navy had a filing system that all their documentation was filed in, but it's a little arcane; would you expect to find damage and loss reports under "Appreciation, depreciation, and disposition?"

    But I overheard the archivist in charge of RG 181 here at San Bruno telling a couple other researchers about one accession that was 114 large boxes (roughly 18 inches long each) that was a collection of photos from Mare Island Naval Shipyard. The only way to look for a specific ship or photo is to go through the photographer's logs, which themselves are six boxes long. Try and imagine how long it might take to categorize that and create a useful finding aid. Anyway, long of it is, "no googling."

    Had a good find today. I've had a website on the destroyer Ward for about six years, and it's been one of those "low burner" research projects. Since she was built at Mare Island, it was a fair bet they'd have some records, and I knew that the First Shot Naval Vets had used some photos from Mare Island in their "Ward Fires First Shot" book.

    So I found Ward's folder today; most were photos I'd seen before, but there were a couple of new ones:

    This one was interesting, I'd never read that her ship's wheel was specially inscribed.

    Monday, May 19, 2008

    Day 1

    Greetings everyone. Above is a photo of where I'll be spending the next four days.

    This is not a complaint, mind you, but researching isn't as fun as it might initially seem. Unless you are completely retired and without obligation, time is always a factor that rears it's head. Five days isn't that much time. And when you find records that are interesting, but "off topic" you have to strike a balance. Get too off track and you won't get what you came for, but it's possible you won't find it anyway and it's good to at least have something, even if it's not what you originally came for.

    I compensate somewhat by creating a process to scan things in as quickly as possible. Photos are kept in individual mylar sleeves.. .while one is scanning, I take the next one out and keep it ready. When the scan stops, I switch photos, laying the one just scanned down outside of its mylar until after the next one starts... I figure I save maybe 2-3 seconds off each scan that way, but it can certainly add up over time. I also use the scan time to update noes, create folders, etc.. I treat it like any other OODA loop and work to decrease the time each evolution takes.

    Enough theory, time for some fun pictures.

    The US Navy labeled its camouflage designs as "measures" in WWII, with some of the official wild dazzle schemes defined in "patterns." I think I have discovered a previously unknown Measure, that of "Measure Van Gogh."

    Certainly looks impressionistic, doesn't it? I only wish I'd found a color shot so we could see how she looked in real life. That's APD-6 Stringham in December 1942 at Mare Island, by the way.

    This next shot was part of a series of 4 that were marked "USS San Francisco" on the back, in a folder for CA-38 San Francisco. This one was simply captioned, "Cabin:"

    I don't buy it. Sure, she was commissioned in 1934 when things weren't quite as spartan as wartime regulations, but that's a bit over the time, and I think this is from an earlier ship, probably C-5 San Francisco.

    Last one for today, another miss-file, this one humorously so. This popped up in a folder for CL-48 USS St. Louis:

    That's right folks, an F-18 HORNET. Who knew the Navy wanted to operate them from WWII cruisers?

    Sunday, May 18, 2008

    Greetings from SFO

    First full stop here in about 10 years..

    I will say that getting a laptop, a camera, and two scanners through security in carry-on... is annoying. Each scanner needs its own tub, as does the laptop, then shoes and associated gear... I had a train of six items and was glad I hit it when it was slow... coulda peeved a bunch of people otherwise.

    Finished this while waiting at the airport, could be handy for the small-scale diorama enthusiast.

    I start walking at 7AM.


    Well, less than 12 hours and I'll be "wheels in the well" and heading south for San Bruno. This will be the fourth archives branch I've been to, albeit I only managed three hours at Laguna Niguel.

    Preparations for a research trip is like any other, with perhaps some odd items on the checklist. Laptop & scanner? check. Spare scanner? Well, not enough room since I'll be walking in and need to pack a sling bag. All associated cables I might ever need and won't be able to go drive to pick up a new one if I forget? check, check, and check! Business cards in case I run into another researcher on-site I'd like to keep in contact with? Check. Full battery charge on all my cordless devices and camera and chargers for same? check. Cheat-sheet of Navy File Codes that I want to keep in my head as I'm scanning the finding aids? half done and I'll finish it on the flight down. Headphones for music to keep the pure scanning sessions a little less monotonous so that I'm not brain-fried by 3/4s of the day and miss things? check!

    These are just some of the little touches you learn about over time to maximize the productivity of the time you have.

    Biggest regret? No car means no chance to hit an In-N-Out Burger. Still want to figure out a way to bring my spare scanner.

    Saturday, May 17, 2008

    What a week

    The thing about being pretty much an "on site" IT consultant and then being away for half of a month is that it tends to put a heavy load on you the weeks you're in town. The last month I've been out of town more than in town, and I'm about to head out of town again, so it was a fairly intense week. Thursday was my first trixbox Pro install and Friday was a 3com NBX rollout that took longer than expected (note: labeled network ports that do not match up with the labels on the server room patch panels = bad).

    Good news is that I'll be hitting San Francisco for a week of research... more on that later.