NPS at 100: Digitization of the National Register

By Special Contributor posted 03-31-2016 17:19


By Paul Loether

Originally Posted March 7, 2016

In this next post in a monthly series celebrating the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, Paul Loether examines the digitization of the National Register.

The National Park Service’s (NPS) Gift to the Nation Initiative is a revolutionary, multiyear, multimillion-dollar project to fully digitize National Register (NR) nomination files. Digitization of the nonrestricted files will dramatically broaden access to data that are vital for the protection of historic places across the nation. Digitized NR and National Historic Landmark (NHL) materials will be available online not only for government agencies at all levels, but also for preservation organizations and advocates and the public at large.

 Now one of Austin, Texas's main entertainment hubs, the Historic Sixth Street developed as a major trade and commercial districts in the late 1800s and was added to the National Register for Historic Places in 1975. Credit: Jim Nix on Flickr via Creative Commons

Since 1966, the NPS has stored over 90,000 irreplaceable paper files at its Washington, DC, office. The files document more than 1.8 million historic structures. They include NR nominations and photographs, maps, and correspondence associated with nominations. The first phase of the Initiative began in August 2014 with the transfer of NR and NHL nomination “legacy” files from DC to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) Federal Records Center (FRC) in Fort Worth, Texas. The NPS Western Archeological and Conservation Center is organizing those files and will prepare them for digitization by the FRC. NARA’s Electronic Records Archive (ERA) will be responsible for preserving the digitized versions in perpetuity.

The Initiative is a massive undertaking that comes with a unique set of implementation challenges, beginning with the cost of relocating, organizing, and digitizing 90,000 files. Ensuring that the digitized files are sustainable and remain relevant into the future presents another challenge, and the NPS is working to preclude future file migration and electronic application issues. The NPS has also been focused on establishing consistent file formats and data, a task that has been complicated by the fact that legacy files dating from before 1995 do not contain nearly as much data or as many categories of data as newer nomination files. Maintaining the Gift to the Nation will necessitate including new data categories as they are added to nominations.

 An art deco styled lighthouse the Milwaukee Breakwater Light was built in 1926 as a federal guide on Lake Michigan and marks the entrance to the Milwaukee Harbor. The light is on the National Register for Historic Places.| Credit: Michael Pereckas on Flickr via Creative Commons

One early challenge of the Initiative was maintaining access to the files while they are during digitization, and the NPS has successfully structured the Initiative to preclude any significant impact on the ability of federal, state, or tribal historic preservation officers to submit—or the NPS’ ability to receive, process, and/or list—new NR nominations in a timely manner. The NPS can access and distribute from its own servers more than 67,000 PDF copies of nomination texts and related photographs. These digitized files continue to provide useful and accessible interim electronic “coverage” for nomination texts and photographs for most states. Furthermore, electronic copies of publicly inaccessible, unrestricted NR files can be requested from the NPS NR program office in Washington, DC.

At the time of its completion in 1870, the Waco Suspension Bridge was the longest single-span suspension bridge west of the Mississippi. An icon in downtown Waco, the bridge is on the National Register for Historic Places. | Credit: cmh2315fl on Flickr via Creative Commons

For properties listed in the NR since January 1, 2013, copies of fully processed and scanned, nonrestricted nomination files—including nomination texts, maps, photographs and all file correspondence—have been and will continue to be made available through a search engine  within approximately 30 days of a property’s listing. NR and NHL nomination texts and photographs of NR properties listed in many states prior to January 1, 2012, are available online via the NPS’s NR nomination spreadsheet. Questions or problems regarding access to or retrieval of NR or NHL nomination file materials are addressed on an ongoing basis by the NR and NHL archivists, Jeff Joeckel and Rustin Quaide, who can be reached at or at 202-354-2224, respectively.

The Gift to the Nation Initiative is one important step forward in making the NR a more accessible and comprehensive resource. The NPS can take further significant steps to improve the utility of the NR by prioritizing, for example, consistent and comprehensive identification, nomination, and data collection for historic resources associated with currently underrepresented segments of U.S. society.

Paul Loether is the National Register Chief with the National Park Service.

#NationalParkService #HistoricSites #NationalRegister #documentation #PreservationTools

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