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Collection Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives

Technical Information

Digitizing the Collection

Digital images made in the 1990s have provided reference access to the Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information negatives for many years. In 2009, the Library developed a plan to rescan the collection and begin to provide digital images that more completely satisfy research and reproduction needs. Specifically, the Library will produce scans that fully capture the subject content of each photograph including the finest details and the full range of tones. The Library will not attempt to produce images that capture the physical or structural properties of the negatives (i.e. the film grain, discoloration, deterioration)

To determine the technical specifications for this project, the Library consulted with members of the Federal Agencies Digitization Guidelines Initiative (FADGI). The Library adopted recommendations of the FADGI Still Image Working Group in its Technical Guidelines for Digitizing Cultural Heritage Materials. Additionally, the Library conducted tests to determine the limits of spatial frequency information (resolution) and range of tonality contained in the original negatives themselves. Using this kind of information, the Library will set technical specifications for each film format and type as the digitizing resources become available.

In 2010, rescanning began for the estimated 90,000 nitrate negatives, starting with the 45,000 35mm film frames. Each 35 mm frame was digitized at a sampling frequency of 2800 pixels-per-inch, 14 bits-per pixel tonal range capture (available as 16-bit), and in TIFF format. Prior to production scanning, the Library used a scanner test target provided by Image Science Associates to measure the capabilities of the scanning system to ensure that the device could produce a measureable output resolution of 2800 pixels-per-inch. Once production work began, the system was retested daily to ensure consistent performance.

The images are adjusted after capture to produce a reasonable representation of each photographic scene, while ensuring that no tonal information is lost in highlight and shadow details and that the full range of tones evident in the original negative is also represented in the digital image. No other post-processing is applied to reduce noise, eliminate scratches or dust, recreate missing elements of the images, or to sharpen or otherwise improve the overall aesthetics of the photograph. Minimally processed images provide greater flexibility for making additional corrections and adjustments for specific output needs, such as examining fine details, adjusting tones to examine shadow or highlight details, printing for publication, image restoration, exhibition displays, or other repurposing projects.

Digitizing the Negatives in the 1990s

The digital images that first provided reference access to FSA-OWI negatives grew out of a special project to make preservation copies of deteriorating nitrate and diacetate negatives in the Library of Congress photographic collections. In the late 1980s, the original sheet film negatives began to be duplicated onto sheet film; in the mid 1990s, the 35mm roll film began to be copied onto 70mm roll film.

In the early 1990s, in order to produce a reference service videodisc, while the preservation reformatting proceeded, the Library produced an additional 35mm film copy of the negatives. The contractor, Stokes Imaging of Austin, Texas, produced the analog videodisc from the 35mm film in a two- step process. First, Stokes created a set of interim digital images with the moderate spatial resolution of 560x420 pixels. This set of digital images was archived. Second, the digital images were processed to create the analog video frames. Beginning in 1995, a new contractor, JJT, Inc., of Thorndale, Texas, reprocessed the interim digital images into formats suitable for archiving and Internet service. However, this reprocessing did not permit any increase in the resolution of the files.

The reprocessed digital files are, for the most part, what is presented in this online collection. The black-and-white images have a tonal resolution of 8 bits-per-pixel (256 shades of gray), while the color images have a tonal resolution of 24 bits-per-pixel (16 million shades). All have been compressed with the JPEG (Joint Photographic Experts Group) algorithm. Uncompressed versions of the images at the same resolution are also available online.

Describing the Collection

Much of the Prints and Photographs Division's cataloging is considered "minimal level," because information in catalog records is often limited to what is provided with the pictures rather than what could be learned by fully researching them.

The cataloging notes explain general cataloging guidelines for the Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information (FSA-OWI) Photograph Collection. They also point out which information in a catalog record is most useful when citing pictures in research notes or publications. Since the original information accompanying a image can be inaccurate or incomplete, the Division is always glad to hear from researchers who have more accurate or complete information. Please use our Ask a Librarian page and indicate the source of additional information or corrections. Please be aware that it usually takes several weeks to confirm information and make changes to online catalog records.

For general information about cataloging pictorial materials, see the Visual Materials: Processing & Cataloging Bibliography.

Cataloging Notes

The primary source of information for cataloging images in the FSA-OWI collection is the caption cards. In some cases the caption sheets or captions affixed to the mounted prints from the reading room file are used. Information obtained from these sources includes dates, descriptive captions, photographers' names, geographic locations, and names of the government agencies under whose auspices the images were produced.

TITLE. The titles for works in the collection have been taken from the caption drafts developed in the 1930s and 1940s while the photographic project was underway. The terms presented here are the terms found in those historical sources and represent the usage of the time. For example, the noun and adjective 'Negro' is typically used where a contemporary documentary project might use the term 'African American.'

If a negative has a caption card, the title is transcribed from the card. In some cases the title is copied from other sources, such as caption sheets or the captions on file prints. Whenever possible, erroneous spellings or misinformation are corrected. Occasionally, a title is devised by the cataloger, based on an image's similarity to neighboring captioned images. The source of the title is always indicated in a note. Catalog records for negatives with no captions have [Untitled] in the Title field. Note: Records in the American Memory online display do not display this label.

Community barber shop in Kern County migrant camp, California
Crowd at horse race, Lancaster, Ohio

>OTHER TITLE. This field contains other titles that may be associated with a negative besides the title from its caption card. Some of these titles are transcribed from the caption sheets. However, most are from the captions on the mounts of corresponding file prints in the Print and Photographs Division Reading Room or from published sources. The source of other titles is always indicated in a note.

TITLE: Saturday afternoon in Franklin, Heard County, Georgia
OTHER TITLE: Franklin, Georgia. Men sitting in the window of the post office

CALL NUMBER. This is an alpha-numeric code assigned to an individual original negative in the collection and used by staff to locate the item at the Library of Congress.

LC-USF33-015327-M2 P&P

In the above example, LC stands for the repository of the FSA-OWI collection (the Library of Congress), USF33 for a particular film negative series in the collection (consisting of negatives in 35 mm format produced under the auspices of the Farm Security Administration), and 015327 for an individually-numbered 35mm film strip in the USF33 series. M-2 refers to the second frame or image on the film strip. The code P&P displayed at the end of the call number identifies the custodial division at the Library of Congress, the Prints and Photographs Division.

LC-USF34-000697-C P&P

In this example, LC stands for the repository of the FSA-OWI collection (the Library of Congress), USF34 for a particular film negative series in the collection (comprising negatives in single-sheet format produced under the auspices of the Farm Security Administration), and 000697 for a single-numbered film negative in the USF34 series. C refers to the negative's size (4 x 5 inches). The code P&P displayed at the end of the call number identifies the custodial division at the Library of Congress, the Prints and Photographs Division.

Note the use of leading zeros as placeholders, so that the base number of each individual negative has six numeric digits. Researchers need to keep this in mind when performing number searches.

REPRODUCTION NUMBER. This is an alpha-numeric code identifying black-and-white negatives or transparencies from which prints, transparencies, and other photographic reproductions can be ordered. This number is the most useful (and shortest) reference citation to include with any subsequent publication of the image. Most often the Reproduction Number matches the Call Number for the original negative, although sometimes copy or duplicate negatives were made of the original negatives and put in other negative series.

A qualifying phrase at the end of this field identifies the source type from which photographic reproductions are made (e.g., b&w film neg., b&w film copy neg., b&w film dup. neg.). In a very few instances, this phrase indicates when copy negatives are details or cropped versions of the original negatives. Information about cropping and detailing is included in the qualifying phrase only when such information is available at the time of cataloging. When present, such information can help in the selection of copy negatives for reproduction.

LC-USF33-015327-M2 (b&w film neg.)
LC-USZ62-51778 (b&w film copy neg., cropped)
LC-USF331-000500-M3 (b&w film copy neg.)
LC-USF33-T01-000001-M1 (b&w film dup. neg.)

If the Reproduction Number field is blank, it means that there is no negative or transparency from which photographic reproductions can be ordered.

OTHER NUMBER. This field contains the "Class Number" assigned to a film negative's corresponding photographic file print in the Prints and Photographs Reading Room. The class number is composed of a letter, generally representing a geographic region, and a number, which indicates the subject matter of the image. These numbers are transcribed from the backs of caption cards or file prints. Not all of the catalog records for images with titles have a Class Number field because in some cases this information is not available when making a catalog record. Records for images that have [Untitled] in the Title field do not have Class Number fields, because file prints were never made.


MEDIUM. The physical properties of the original image are described in this field. Physical properties are determined by examining the original item. The quantity (always 1), the basic physical type (negative), and the size of the original negative are given here. More specific information as to the type of negative film (nitrate or safety) is added when known. Information in this field also serves as a reminder that the physical properties of the original work differ greatly from a digital reproduction.

1 negative : nitrate ; 35 mm.
1 negative : safety ; 4 x 5 in.

CREATED/PUBLISHED. This field contains the date that the image was photographed. The date is generally transcribed from the caption cards for those negatives with captions, although at times caption sheets are consulted as well. Records for negatives without captions have a bracketed date range: [between 1935 and 1944]. This covers the period from the initial establishment of the photographic section at the Resettlement Administration in 1935 up to the time of the collection's transfer to the Library of Congress in 1944.

The dates for some images are uncertain. This is indicated in catalog records by a question mark at the end of the date.

1936 Nov.
1938 Summer?
[between 1935 and 1944]

CREATOR. This field contains the name of the person who photographed the image. Information for this field is generally derived from the caption cards for items with captions, although at times caption sheets are also consulted. The form of the photographer's name matches that in the Library of Congress Name Authority File. This form is used so that it is possible to retrieve all the images by a photographer under a single spelling or form of his/her name. Birth and death dates are included only when such information was readily available when the Library of Congress form of the name was established. If the form of the name was established while the photographer was still alive, a death date was not usually added upon his/her death. It is expensive to update such information, and the name is already uniquely identified in the catalog. The term photographer appears after the creator's name to identify the relationship between the name and the item cataloged. The absence of a name in this field indicates that the photographer's name was not available when the record was made. Note: Records in the American Memory online display do not display this label.

Evans, Walker, 1903-1975, photographer.
Lange, Dorothea, photographer.

RELATED NAMES. This field contains names of government agencies associated with the production of the image. Such information generally comes from the caption card.

This field also contains the names of individual photographers when more than one photographer is associated with a negative. This usually happens when available sources provide conflicting information as to who photographed an image. There is a corresponding note in the Notes field explaining the conflict.

United States. Resettlement Administration.
United States. Farm Security Administration.
Evans, Walker, 1903-1975, photographer.
Locke, Edwin, photographer.

NOTES. A variety of notes provide additional information about an image and its accompanying information. Notes generally fall into one of the following categories:

1) Notes on the source of the title. Usually the source of the title is the caption card for a negative, but in some cases the card is blank and the title is either taken from another source, such as a file print or caption sheet, or devised by the cataloger. When images have additional titles, notes are also made explaining the source of these titles.

Title from caption card.
Title from file print.
Caption card is blank. Title derived from similar images with neighboring call numbers.
Title devised by cataloger.
Other title from file print.
Other title from Documenting America, 1935-1943 / edited by Carl Fleischhauer and Beverly W. Brannan. Berkeley: University of California Press in association with the Library of Congress, 1988.

2) Notes indicating the presence of additional information on a caption card beyond what is usually present (title, photographer's name, date, geographic location, etc.). Some notes also explain conflicting or ambiguous information that appears elsewhere in the record.

Additional annotation on caption card: Photo probably taken by Ben Shahn in the Shenandoah Valley or near the U.S. Resettlement Administration's Shenandoah Homesteads Project. Probably Nov. 1941.
Photographed by Walker Evans or Edwin Locke.

3) Notes about prints made from the negative. These notes include information about file prints that are located in places other than the FSA-OWI classified file in the Prints and Photographs Division Reading Room. Notes are also made when a file print has been printed in reverse from the original negative.


File print for this negative filed under Houston, Samuel in the Biographical File in the Prints and Photographs Division Reading Room at the Library of Congress.
File print is reversed; printed backwards.

4) General caption card notes. Photographers sometimes wrote "general captions" in addition to captions for individual negatives. These general captions, which are found in the written records for the collection and on some of the caption cards, provide background information on a series of images documenting the same geographic location or subject. A limited number of these captions have been added to the catalog records.

General caption for this series of images: The thresher is generally owned by the engineer who may own a half dozen threshers. The crew is recruited from neighboring farms and neighboring towns. Often are mechanics, store clerks, etc.

5) Notes stating that an original negative is missing.

Negative is missing.

6) Notes indicating additional black-and-white negatives or transparencies, other than the original item, from which prints and other photographic reproductions may be ordered. The numbers for these additional negatives are also cited in the Reproduction Number field.

Additional annotation on caption card: LC-USZ62-62202 (original negative missing June 1977).
Additional annotation on caption card: Use copy negative in LC-USF331 for this image.

7) Notes about the availability of an electronic surrogate or digital image for a negative.

Use electronic surrogate.
No electronic surrogate.
Electronic surrogate is reversed.

8) Notes on the physical condition of an original negative. Catalog records for items in the LC-USF33 series may also contain notes about gaps between images on a single strip of film or information as to whether a particular image was "killed."

Negative is torn.
Gap between frames M1 and M2.
This image on a strip in a jacket marked "Killed."

9) Notes indicating the LOT number in which a negative's corresponding photographic print from a negative is found or may be found.

LOT 1275 (Location of corresponding print).
LOT 1014 (Possible location of corresponding print).

10) Notes explaining how to identify images with no caption title.

To identify this image it may help to search online for images that have neighboring callnumbers, are similar in appearance, and have titles. There was no caption for this image in the FSA/OWI shelflist.

11) Notes providing additional information from other sources besides caption cards, caption sheets, or file prints' captions. This includes identifications of people in images and additional information on an image furnished by the photographer.

Woman in photograph identified as Ofelia Sandoval by her daughter, Ofelia Sandoval Rinaldi, 3/5/98.

12) A note indicating how, when, and from whom the Library of Congress acquired the collection. This note appears in every catalog record for items in the FSA-OWI Collection: Transfer; United States. Office of War Information. Overseas Picture Division. Washington Division; 1944.

SUBJECTS. Subject access to the FSA-OWI collection is primarily by means of hierarchical geographic "strings" that allow keyword access to names of countries and states, as well as counties and cities. These "strings" are generated from information on the caption cards. For example, an image with a caption identifying it as being photographed in Chicago, Illinois, will have the following geographic subject: United States--Illinois--Chicago. Whenever possible geographic place names are verified in Webster's New Geographical Dictionary (Springfield, Mass. : G. & C. Merriam Company, 1980), Columbia Lippincott Gazetteer of the World (New York : Columbia University Press, 1952), the Library of Congress' Subject Authority File, or on the Internet.

In addition, catalog records for a very limited number of images contain topical terms from the Thesaurus for Graphic Materials I: Subject Terms (TGM I). A small number of records also include personal names as subjects. This usually occurs when an FSA-OWI photographer or a prominent person (such as Franklin D. Roosevelt) appears in the image.

United States--Arizona--Petrified Forest National Park.
United States--District of Columbia--Washington (D.C.)
United States--Illinois--Mercer County--Aledo.
United States--Iowa--Ringgold County.
Automobile radiator ornaments.
Evans, Walker, 1903-1975.

TOPICS. The other basic type of subject indexing in catalog records for negatives in the FSA-OWI collection is an uncontrolled indexing vocabulary developed by Library of Congress staff shortly after the FSA-OWI collection came to the library. These terms, typed on the some of the caption cards, consist of geographic place names (e.g. IL|Williamson County) or a combination of a place name and a subject (e.g. IN|Auctions). This indexing vocabulary is considered uncontrolled because the terms do not come from an authorized vocabulary and are not assigned in a consistent manner. For example MN|Small towns|Other small towns and MN|Other small towns are used for images with similar subjects.

FORMAT. The physical characteristics of the original image are listed in this field. Terms used to index records in the FSA-OWI collection include: Film negatives, Nitrate negatives, and Safety negatives. The terms come from the Thesaurus for Graphic Materials II: Genre and Physical Characteristic Terms (TGM II).

COLLECTION. This field links a negative to its corresponding collection. It is useful to include the collection name in bibliographic citations. Each catalog record in the FSA-OWI collection contains the following information in this field: Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress).

REPOSITORY. This field provides the name and address of the institution that has custody of the original negative. This information can help in locating or citing the original image. The following information appears in every catalog record for this collection: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA.

DIGITAL ID. This field provides information on the source and location of the digital file for an image. B&W film copy interpositive denotes that an interpositive made from the original negative was scanned to create a digital image, and is followed by an identification number of the digital file that links the image to the catalog record. FSA stands for the name of the collection to which the scanned image belongs.

original 8a31314 fsa

CARD NUMBER. The control number, or card number, for each catalog record is a unique identification number. When known, this number can be used to do a quick number search to locate a specific record rather than performing a longer, less precise keyword or subject search. Note: Records in the American Memory online display do not display this label.