News Article

National Archives, NOAA and University of Washington Collaboration Complete Part One of Naval Vessel Digitization Project

July 10, 2019

In collaboration with the Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean (JISAO), a partnership between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University of Washington, the National Archives has digitized more than 500 volumes of U.S. Navy muster rolls and are accessible to the public through the National Archives Catalog. These Navy records are the official lists of enlisted sailors working on Naval ships from 1861 to 1879. The muster roll digitization is part of a $482,000 grant awarded to the JISAO, U.S. National Archives, and National Archives Foundation to support Seas of Knowledge: Digitization and Retrospective Analysis of the Historical Logbooks of the United States Navy program. 

Muster roll data provides unprecedented access to information about enlisted sailors during this pivotal time in American history, including their names, place of birth, age, physical description, as well as information on status such as desertion and discharge. The muster rolls also provide insight on seamen’s “contraband,” which at the time often referred to escaped African American slaves that served in the Navy during and after the Civil War. Citizen archivists can now transcribe this muster roll data from the catalog.

“The scientific and educational benefits of digitizing historical records are incredible,” said Kevin Wood, the project’s Lead Principal Investigator and Research Scientist for JISAO. “From the Navy muster rolls alone, we can glean insight into the diversity of the crew and their day-to-day lives on these vessels.”

In part two of the project, the National Archives will digitize Navy logbooks and other related materials from these U.S. Naval vessels. After the digitization of the logbooks is complete, the Archives and NOAA will call upon citizen archivists, genealogical researchers and climate scientists to transcribe the information from the muster rolls and Navy logbooks into usable data.  

Once the next phase of digitization is complete, researchers will have access to recover ships’ positions, weather records, oceanographic data and other historical information that will have a dramatic impact for scientists.

“This project is revealing how modern technology mixed with history can make us rethink the weather that affects us every day,” said Executive Director of the National Archives Foundation Patrick Madden. “One hundred years ago, who could have predicted that archival data would illuminate the lives of these sailors while giving scientists unprecedented access to big data today? It is testament to the importance of the National Archives and the integral role history plays in our future.”

This project is supported by the Digitizing Hidden Collections grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR).  The grant program is made possible by funding from  The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

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The National Archives Foundation is an independent nonprofit that increases public awareness of the National Archives, inspires a deeper appreciation of our country’s heritage, and encourages citizen engagement in our democracy. The Foundation generates financial and creative support for National Archives exhibitions, public programs, and educational initiatives, introducing America’s records to people around the U.S. and the world. Learn more at: archivesfoundation.org.

The National Archives is an independent federal agency that serves American democracy by safeguarding and preserving the records of our Government, so people can discover, use, and learn from this documentary heritage. The National Archives ensures continuing access to the essential documentation of the rights of American citizens and the actions of their government. From the Declaration of Independence to accounts of ordinary Americans, the holdings of the National Archives directly touch the lives of millions of people. The National Archives carries out its mission through a nationwide network of archives, records centers, and Presidential Libraries, and on the Internet at: archives.gov.

The Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) is an independent, nonprofit organization that forges strategies to enhance research, teaching, and learning environments in collaboration with libraries, cultural institutions, and communities of higher learning. To learn more, visit www.clir.org.