When Congress decreed that certain Vietnam War Navy veterans could get help for exposure to Agent Orange, the Department of Veterans Affairs had a challenge. How do you verify who was on what ship and when, 50 years ago? The Veterans Benefits Administration turned to the National Archives and Records Administration, which has the ships’ logs tucked away. For what happened next, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin turned to NARA archivist Sarah Herman.
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Tom Temin: Ms. Herman, good to have you on.
Sarah Herman: Hi, thanks for having me.
Tom Temin: Tell us what you had to do, exactly. You had to dig out ships’ logs and then what? Tell us about this.
Sarah Herman: So this has been a massive project for us. It’s a great example of a interagency collaboration between two very large agencies. About a year ago, we were contacted by a representative from the VBA, and they wanted to know how we could go about systematically digitizing Vietnam War era US Navy and Coast Guard deck logs. At the time they were proactively preparing for that expected passage of that law, which would extend the disability compensation to service personnel who served within 12 nautical miles off the coast of Vietnam and Cambodia. As you mentioned, we hold those logs, and so even though we’re not involved in administrating claims, they needed the information that was held there.
Tom Temin: These logs, are they books or what? What do they look like physically?
Sarah Herman: So physically they are, for the Navy side, a standard form, their paper blue sheets that had previously been bound in Scruples binders. But NARA had done work many years ago to remove them from those binders, placed them into archival housing, good folders. They’re in good condition stored in archival boxes.
Tom Temin: Got it, and what did the original captains write in, was it pencil or pen?
Sarah Herman: Pen. It was pen, so they usually had a rough log, which would have been in pencil, and that would have been a scrawled notes that were usually a little more difficult to read. And then there would be something called a smooth log. And that’s the final version that we maintain. And that’s written in pen and generally in a painstaking, tidy handwriting.
Tom Temin: Interesting. So in many ways, you have an organic connection to those sailors of long ago?
Sarah Herman: Very much so.
Tom Temin: All right, so why did they need to be digitized if you could just read them?
Sarah Herman: There were thousands and thousands of logs that are relevant to the Vietnam era and because the location information scattered throughout it would have taken an individual many hours to go through and read them. So to make the jobs easier for the claims adjudicators on the VBA side, they wanted to create a process system that would contain that location information so that they could quickly, using the ship name or the hull number, figure out whether or not a sailor on that ship was covered by the new law.
Tom Temin: And in digitizing them, was it simply a matter of making images of them? Or did the information that was handwritten somehow get made into a digital searchable format?
Sarah Herman: So the digitization itself does not make that does not immediately becomes searchable. The VBA contractors are going through and extracting that information and capturing it in electronic format so that it’s searchable.
Tom Temin: And can that be done by character recognition? Or does someone have to just read it and type it over?
Sarah Herman: It can’t be done by character recognition. Unfortunately, optical character recognition, or OCR is not quite at the point where you can use it for this, yet. Since the logs are handwritten, the number of individuals writing them over the years different greatly, many different examples of handwriting. So it had to be done manually.
Tom Temin: All right, and the original digitization then was a matter of scanning. And how did you accomplish that?
Sarah Herman: So the digitization itself is being done in a scanning facility that is contacted by the VBA. The contractor uses industry leading scanners, which combine high speed production capacity with technology that yields high resolution images. Since the deck logs are archival materials and we are committed to ensuring that they are safely scanned, we worked very closely with the VBA and the contractor to make sure that the scanners met our standards. We inspected the facility, we train the staff, and we worked closely with them to make sure that the scanner settings were safe for archival records.
Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Sarah Herman. She’s an archivist at the National Archives and Records Administration, and in looking at the records and these old logs, did you find anything that was particularly interesting, like – gosh, I didn’t know they saw mermaids that day, back in 1967?
Sarah Herman: So one of the fun things that you find in these logs that may not be as well known is that on Jan. 1 of most years you’ll find a poem in the Navy deck logs. It’s just a fun little quirk that exhibits some of the creativity of the sailors. So that’s always a fun thing to look for.
Tom Temin: Yeah, so that might make as small book, I guess, if you could gather all the poems of all the ships’ logs, might be able to publish that. And –
Sarah Herman: That’s true.
Tom Temin: So the records, though, the paper was, I guess the original paper was such that it could stand up to two moving and scanning?
Sarah Herman: Absolutely. These are modern modern records. It was very high quality paper at the time. They’ve been preserved now at the National Archives for the last 20 or 30 years, and they’re in very good condition. Anything that was not in good condition, we pulled out for our conservators to work on.
Tom Temin: Sure, I guess you could put it by hand in the scanner, maybe, if it was wrinkled or torn or something. And how were they stored in the first place? Were they in College Park[, Maryland,] in some kind of a temperature controlled, humidity controlled situation?
Sarah Herman: The Navy logs are located in College Park. Our stacks are temperature and humidity controlled. We have standards that we apply. They have been safely preserved for years.
Tom Temin: And Hollywood imagery notwithstanding, could you get your hands on them pretty quickly?
Sarah Herman: Absolutely. These are some of our most highly requested records, So NARA had excellent finding aides. We were ready to work with the VA on this one.
Tom Temin: So when you say they were your most, they’re among your most often requested, why is that?
Sarah Herman: They generally served two of our main customer bodies, and that includes our veterans. Veterans have been accessing them from the National Archives for decades for the same purpose that the VBA is looking for them. And then they also were used by historians and other researchers.
Tom Temin: And if a veteran wants to check a record, how does that work? Can they go to College Park and someone will bring them out that record onto a table they can look at?
Sarah Herman: Absolutely. And they can also contact us, through our offsite reference process, and we would, mail them a copy.
Tom Temin: So you can – that was my next question. You could make copies or locally, one of types of copies without reverting to a contractor?
Sarah Herman: The only reason this needed to go through the contractor process is because it’s such a high volume of records and the turnaround that the VBA was looking for because they needed to start serving those claims Jan. 1 of 2020. It was such a fast turnaround. We could not have done that in-house.
Tom Temin: And are you finished with the project or is it still ongoing?
Sarah Herman: It is ongoing. We anticipate that will be completely finished with both the Navy and Coast Guard portions by midsummer.
Tom Temin: How many sheets in total do you estimate are involved?
Sarah Herman: To date, we’ve done over 20 million images.
Tom Temin: Oh, my Lord.
Sarah Herman: And we’re about halfway, so puts it into perspective.
Tom Temin: Wow. So these air logs that were kept daily?
Sarah Herman: They were. Generally for each day you have, in addition to the daily record of where the ship was and what was happening on it, you also have a weather date page that covers what was happening in the atmosphere, the temperature of the water, things like that.
Tom Temin: Interesting. Well, this sounds like something that has occupied you personally for – what you gonna do after this is over?
Sarah Herman: We’ve got lots more to do.
Tom Temin: Sarah Herman is an archivist at the National Archives and Records Administration. Thanks so much for joining me.
Sarah Herman: Thank you.
Tom Temin: We’ll post this interview at www.federalnewsnetwork.com/FederalDrive. Hear the Federal Drive on your schedule. Subscribe at Apple podcasts or Podcastone.