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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