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Through the holdings of the National Archives are a myriad of stories that are ready to be told, from struggle and misfortune to triumph and perseverance. In this “Stories From Our Holdings” series, we will endeavor to highlight works that have been created utilizing the tens of millions of our primary source documents, photographs, and films. In accomplishing this mission, we also hope to give well deserved exposure to the individuals who have come through the doors of the National Archives and discovered these stories.

Many stories are discovered while researching the records at the National Archives. One story, “‘The Hard Industry of My Own Hands’: Three American Civil War Widows in Ireland Struggle to Survive,” was created by Damian Shiels, an Ireland- based archaeologist specializing in conflict archaeology, which was first published on his website, Irish in the American Civil War. Mr. Shiels shared his research journey with us by email.

Damian Shiels
Damien Shiels, Photo courtesy of Goodreads, 2014

As he researched his story, Mr. Shiels utilized records culled from the pension files of the National Archives, including personal letters and official government correspondence between Washington D.C and the U.S. Consulate in Ireland, to tell the story of the hardships faced by three Irish women: Eleanor Hogg, Maria Sheppell and Honora Cleary. Although these women were from different religious and geographical backgrounds within Ireland, they shared unenviable commonalities in that all three were poor, illiterate, and had lost their husbands to the American Civil War. Interestingly, they also share the similarity that there is no evidence that any of these women ever set foot in the United States.

Shiels believes that the husbands of these women, Francis Michael Cleary, Farrell Hogg, and Nicholas Sheppell, left  poor lives in Ireland in order to eventually make a better life for their families in America. During this time, service on behalf of the Union Army in the American Civil War was much more financially lucrative than a farmer or laborer’s allowance in impoverished Ireland. As he continued to research the connections between these women, Shiels discovered appeals made by an employee of the U.S. Consulate in Ireland to the Commissioner of Pensions in Washington, DC. The records showed that a case was made for the women to receive their deceased husbands’ pensions. The records indicate not only where, when, and at what age the men had passed away, but also that they left behind 15 children among them.

Because these records were digitized through a partnership with the National Archives and Fold3, they were available for a researcher in Ireland to discover and use. Since Mr. Shiels is based in Ireland and has no physical access to the U.S. National Archives, finding these records online was extremely valuable. In addition to labeling the NARA/Fold3 holdings on the Civil War Widows’ Pensions an “underused resource by many Civil War scholars,” Shiels also states  that:

“I firmly believe it is one of the finest repositories of information on 19th century Irish emigrants both in Ireland and the US available, but is completely unknown by Irish historians… None of my work on pensions would be possible without the exceptional effort currently taking place in the National Archives to digitize this material and make it available online via Fold3.”

170th New York, Corcoran's Irish Legion

170th New York, Corcoran’s Irish Legion on reserve picket duty. A significant amount of Irish immigrants fought for both the North and the South during the American Civil War. Photo Courtesy Library of Congress

If you’d like to learn more about the digitization project that Mr. Shiels used in his research, check out the Civil War Widows’ Pension Digitization Project video on the National Archives’ YouTube channel.

Ever wonder what exciting new projects the many employees at NARA are working on? The “What are You Working On?” blog feature aims to introduce a variety of NARA employees and highlight some of the exciting projects we are working on around the agency.

What is your name and title?

​Michelle Farnsworth, Digital Imaging Technician​

Michelle Farnsworth

Where is your job located?

​I am located at A1 in Washington, DC.

What is your job in a nutshell?

​I consider myself an in-house custom photo lab for NARA. I work with the Exhibits (LX) department to scan and photograph records that are going on exhibit or being loaned out. I make facsimiles for exhibit purposes, as well as many gift facsimiles​ ​for AOTUS, The White House, and The State Department. I also work with Jane Fitzgerald in Research Services, to fulfill any high-quality scanning and printing re​quests from the public.

What are you working on right now?  (Why is it cool/why does it matter?)

​Right now I’m working on scans for our upcoming exhibit, Spirited Republic. Some items that we are borrowing from other NARA libraries have arrived at A1 and they need to be photographed for use online, and in the eBook that will accompany the exhibit. ​

​It’s cool because the items themselves carry historical significance as they belonged, or were gifted, to former U.S. Presidents. The items themselves are often challenging to photograph, which is a nice change of pace from my usual subject matter. ​

How long have you been at NARA?  Have you worked at any other NARA location?

​I’ll be celebrating 8 years with NARA, this spring. When I started, I was working up at the College Park Digital Imaging Lab, but moved down to A1 after a few months to get this lab up and running.  ​

What has changed since you started at NARA?

I was brought into NARA by the late, great Steve Puglia. He had hired and created a small, but very effective team of skilled Imaging Technicians who were excited about the work and environment. That original team was then combined with the former Photo Lab staff to create a bigger Digital Imaging team. We were originally  part of Preservation, but then got moved to IT, and now we are located under the Office of Innovation. It feels a bit like Prince Charming trying to find just the right fit for Cinderella’s shoe!

Do you have a favorite day at NARA, or a favorite discovery or accomplishment?

​I will always remember the two occasions that I was able to photograph Magna Carta. The first time was when David M. Rubenstein had just bought it and the document made it’s way back to NARA. Conservation had taken it out of it’s case to assess it, and we set up an imaging environment in the A1 Conservation Lab so we could work with the conservators to photograph its condition.  ​

​The second time, it was out at A2 after having been newly treated, and I was asked to photograph the process of it being put into it’s shiny new case, which is now on permanent display in our Records of Rights exhibit.​

What are your passions or interests outside of work?

​Outside of work I’m a photographer. ​I’m a chef. I’m a baker. Occasionally, I’m a runner. And on Monday nights, you’ll find me with my girlfriends watching The Bachelor and filling out our Bachelor brackets.

What is the last book you read, or the last book you loved?

​I read Beautiful Ruins by  Jess Walter, over Christmas. But the last book I loved?  That would be We Were Liars by E. Lockhart. Listen to the audiobook, the reader does the most amazing job conveying the emotion of this story.  ​

Are there any other cool facts that you would like folks to know about you?

​My instagram followers join me on my vacations because I share so many travel photos, you feel like you’re there with me…kind of against your will. Also, my photo of the fall leaves is hanging in the hallway at A2!

Harry Snodgrass has dedicated his life to editing, mixing, and producing sound in films. After his first foray into the business as a student at Temple University’s School of Radio Television & Film, Harry moved to Hollywood where he launched a career as a post production sound supervisor, sound editor, and sound mixer.

After beginning work for 20th Century Fox in 1988, Harry was credited as being one of the first to utilize electronic editing by developing and adapting software tools such as Avid and Digidesign to fit the needs of studio sound editors and mixers.

After his success at 20th Century Fox, Harry was offered a position at Universal Studios where he eventually became the manager of the post-production sound editorial department. While serving as Manager of Editorial, he oversaw a large production staff and worked with other studio departments such as film/TV production and studio operations.

From his work on the cult classic Napoleon Dynamite, to the restoration of the 1958 Orson Welles masterpiece Touch of Evil, Harry’s work spans many film genres. In addition to Touch of Evil, Harry’s sound restoration work includes Rear Window, Vertigo, and The Big Red One. Recognition and appreciation for his multifaceted, 100+ film career has led to multiple Emmy award nominations culminating in a win in 2006 for his work as a sound editor on the film Flight 93

Harry Emmy
Harry accepts 2006 The Emmy Award for Outstanding Sound Editing for a Mini-series, Movie or a Special. Photo Courtesy of IMDb

Harry recently brought his skills and talents to the National Archives and Records Administration where he is now working with the Motion Picture Preservation Lab as a preservation technician.  Although sifting through thousands of hours of fragile World War I and World War II era films and stills can be extremely tedious, Harry has enjoyed working on the myriad of thought-provoking, interesting and unusual films that reside in the NARA vaults.

Harry HD transfer
Harry uses a non-linear editing system to prepare an HD transfer of 35mm film for transcode to access files.; Location: Archives 2 – Motion Picture Preservation Lab, College Park, MD; Photographer: Richard Schneider

In addition to the hands-on aspects of sound/film preservation, Harry also documents and promotes the work that the Motion Picture Preservation team does in the blog The Unwritten Record.

Harry Altra
Harry is setting up the Altra for an HD transfer.; Location: Archives 2 – Motion Picture Preservation Lab, College Park, MD; Photographer: Richard Schneider

The films that Harry and the rest of the Motion Picture Preservation Lab are currently working on will be assessed, digitized and uploaded to the National Archives YouTube channel. Users can view the digitized films as part of this project on this playlist.

NARAtions and The Unwritten Record will continue to highlight the works of the Motion Picture Preservation Lab team in the coming months.

Today’s post comes from Markus Most, Director of the Digitization Division at the National Archives.

Based on feedback from the public and National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) staff in June and October/November of 2014, we are publishing our Strategy for Digitizing Archival Materials for Public Access, 2015-2024. We received a total of 20 comments and incorporated them into our final strategy.

Our revised strategy outlines five approaches that NARA will use to achieve our strategic digitization goal outlined in NARA’s 2014-2018 Strategic Plan:

  • Expanding the focus to new types of partnerships and new types of records. NARA’s Principles for Partnerships can be found here.
  • Crowdsourcing digitization and metadata creation.
  • NARA will engage with Federal agencies to ensure that agency-digitized permanent records can flow into the online catalog.
  • Think digital first: NARA will incorporate a focus on online access into our work processes and enable created digital content to flow into our catalog.
  • NARA will continue to leverage its own Digitization Labs for work that partners and contractors cannot do.

Thanks to everyone that contributed their comments and insights.

Today, the National Archives will roll out the new, updated National Archives Catalog. For over a year, NARA staff worked with the firm Search Technologies to design and develop a robust catalog that will facilitate the Agency’s big, hairy, audacious goal to Make Access Happen. While at first glance, it doesn’t look much different from the Online Public Access (OPA) system, once our users start searching, the differences are apparent.

First and foremost, there’s a new address – check it out at

Screenshot of catalog search for "Truman"

And now, about what users won’t see – the “under the hood” stuff. First, the catalog is powered by a completely new search engine with improved relevancy rankings and faster response times. The system has been scaled up to initially handle 100 terabytes of data with a future capacity of up to 10,000 terabytes – so we’re more than ready to handle the millions of digital images that have been created through our external partnerships. We’re also pretty excited that the catalog is the second system at the National Archives to be launched completely in the cloud and is fully integrated with the backend system that NARA staff uses to enter descriptions and upload digital content. What does that mean for our end users? Minimal down-time for system maintenance and weekly updates of new content to search and discover.

Once users start searching in the catalog, they’ll see a new look and feel to the user interface (UI). Based on user feedback, the search results have been streamlined into a tabbed interface that groups results. Users who click into a search result that has digital content associated with it will notice an improved viewer that now allows PDFs to be viewed within it, instead of having to download the file. The UI has been optimized for mobile so users can search, discover, and contribute to the catalog on any mobile device.

Let’s talk contributions. Based on the successful transcription pilot in the Citizen Archivist Dashboard, we’ve integrated transcription directly into catalog. We’re proud to note that NARA is the first archives to do that! By registering for an account, users can now not only tag records but they can transcribe them too. Tags and transcriptions will be indexed nightly and fully searchable creating an enhanced level of access that wouldn’t exist without the help of our citizen contributors.

Screenshot of Truman Doctrine transcription screen

Concurrent with the development of the catalog, NARA also developed a public read-write API for the catalog. The API will allow developer communities to use, re-use, and contribute to our data. By Making Access Happen through the API, others can make even more access happen.

We’ll be posting more about the catalog in the next few weeks, explaining new features and highlighting new content. And while we’re excited for the roll-out, the catalog is still a work-in-progress. We’ll be tweaking over time and we want you to be a part of that. Have an idea for an enhancement? Find a glitch? Email us at
so we can pass it along.

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