Cataloging & Metadata

Researching Archival Photographs

A cataloger playing detective! Researching archival photographs and sharing metadata for improved resource discovery.

I originally wrote this post for my personal blog, since I’d done this research purely for fun. Ultimately, the post landed on my professional blog, as it lends insight into certain aspects of the metadata work I do. If you like solving mysteries, learning about history, and using visual media to explore issues of race, gender, class, politics, and a whole lot more, read on.

A tweet led me to this photograph from the National Archives: Evelyn T. Gray, Riveter and Pearlyne Smiley, Bucker, Complete a Job on Center Section of a Bomber.

While scanning the image for clues that would identify the aircraft, I started to notice details about the women pictured. Where was this photo taken? Why does this photo seem to be telling a different story than the one this color transparency tells? Who took the photo? Were other photos taken at the same time—and were those photos also digitized?

Research & Metadata Creation

Whether you’re flipping pizzas or creating metadata, the art of doing any job well is figuring out aspects of the work that waste time and fail to lend value to the product. The most difficult pieces of information to obtain when researching archival photographs are the names of persons pictured and the provenance of the photograph. If these details are known, many other pieces of information fall into place. Place names are also incredibly helpful to know when chasing down facts about an image. Figuring out the one- to two-year span in which a photograph was taken may not be too hard, once other facts are known.

Given the information I already had available (the names of the persons pictured), figuring out the photographer’s identity was the first mystery to solve.

Getting to the Source Material

The first rule of image sleuthing is to seek out the original source, if possible. This is often not easy. There’s a long history (long before the internet) of people copying and using images without first obtaining permission or crediting the source/creator. Fortunately, Slate Vault’s tweet included a link to the institution that holds the original image. Seeing the physical artifact would have been optimal; however, the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in College Park, MD was a little far for a Sunday drive. From the comfort of my couch, I navigated to the image in NARA’s digital repository.

Know What You Know (and Know What You Don’t Know)

The next step in researching archival photographs is assessing the verity of the information provided with the photograph. Photographers are lousy spellers. Some misremember facts about who/where/what they were shooting. And some are flat out liars. Skepticism is encouraged. So what do we know for certain about this image?

Screencapture of the collection, series, and item titles

The information about this image is provided by NARA–a trustworthy source (your friend’s Facebook feed? Not a trustworthy source: keep digging!). This photograph that was created by the Women’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor. Context is extremely important when evaluating individual archival items. The NARA record indicates that this photographic print is part of the collection, Women Working in Industry, 1940-1945. Other materials in this collection may provide clues as to where the photograph was taken.

Factory button worn by Pearlyne "North American Aviation D31, 214"

Had I not been so preoccupied by the bomber Evelyn and Pearlyne are working on, I would have looked at the series to find clues about location. However, there were a finite number of plants in the U.S. building bombers during WWII. Figuring out the make and model would dramatically narrow down the list of possible places that this photo was taken. On NARA’s digital collections website, I zoomed in on the photo to get a better look at Pearlyne’s worker badge: North American Aviation (NAA). Aha! NAA produced one bomber during the war. Evelyn and Pearlyne are working on a B-25 Mitchell assembly line. [1]

Only two North American Aviation plants built B-25s: NAA’s main plant in Inglewood, California, and a plant in Kansas City, adjacent to Fairfax Field. I had two possible locations and the names of both women in the photo. My next task was to play genealogist. [2]

Couch Genealogist

I’m not sure you can call what I do genealogical research (any Finding Your Roots fans?) but I’m a fair couch genealogist and I love testing how much a “novice” is able to find with modest resources. I started with the easiest thing I could do—search via Google. I tried two searches:

“evelyn t gray” California

“evelyn t gray” Kansas

At least a two Evelyn T. Grays lived in Southern California and were about the right age in the early 1940s. I would have found more Evelyns, had I searched without the middle initial. An Evelyn T. Gray lived in Kansas City during this period. I couldn’t find obituaries for any of these Evelyns via Google. At this point, I might have pursued Evelyn a bit more (the section called Finding Folk describes how I might have done this) but I had another person to research and Pearlyne is a far less common name.

I played the ‘what does Google know’ game with the quoted search, “Pearlyne Smiley.” Predictably, all of the search results referenced the image that I was attempting to describe. Searching “Pearlyne Smiley Inglewood” got me nowhere; however, searching “Pearlyne Smiley Kansas” retrieved a hit on Even better, there was OCR [3] of the text available!

OCR from helped me find this photo in the January 1943 Pittsburgh Courier

I used the browser’s find function, to confirm that “NAA” and “Kansas” both appeared somewhere on this giant newspaper page (“Inglewood” had no hits; “California” had two). I can see from the thumbnail image that there are eight columns of text on the newspaper page. The OCR program read the page faithfully from left to right, which meant that the text of the article was garbled up with junk characters from images and SHOUTY ALL CAPS MESSAGES from advertisements. While the results I got were very encouraging, I needed to see the scanned image of the newspaper page for confirmation. I clicked on the View Full Page button and lo! A paywall. I could not access the high-resolution image.

Licensed Databases at Your Library

Where the not-so-open web had failed me, libraries came through. My institution (a Big Ten research library) pays for access to the ProQuest Historical Newspaper database. I found the newspaper page (nice interface, ProQuest) and, with the digitized newspaper page before me, I confirmed that this photograph was taken at the Kansas City North American Aviation plant. *throws confetti*

This confirmation also means that I can safely disambiguate the identity of Evelyn T. Gray of Kansas City from the other Evelyn Grays I found living in California around the same time. I used a couple of the sources listed below, under Finding Folk, to confirm that Evelyn was born in 1909 and died in 1999. She is buried in Chapel Hill Memorial Gardens in Kansas City. Confirmation of place means that I can now move onto refining the period in which this photo was taken.

Dating Photographs Using Primary and Secondary Sources

The challenge of narrowing the date range from 1940-1945 (as given to us from the name of the series to which this photo belongs) would require research. The photograph appeared in the Pittsburgh Courier on January 30, 1943. According to Wikipedia, the Kansas City plant began producing B-25s in December 1941—that makes for a 14-month span. Can I narrow this down? When did women begin working the line at the Kansas City plant?

In the course of verifying the location and employee demographics of the North American Aviation plant in Kansas City (a fascinating topic that deserves more research), I found a relevant article from the journal, Kansas History. The article by Richard Macias (see References below) is worth a read, as it provides contextual information about black workers and the war effort. The part that is relevant to dating this photo: women began training in factory production work in March 1942 (Macias 255). March 1942 to late January 1943: an eleven-month span.

Cover of North American Skyline July 1942

Here I got stuck. I found an online store/WWII digital archive containing Skyline, a magazine published by North American Aviation. According to this website, the July 1942 issue has an article with the title, “The Camera Looks at North American – Photographs from all the plants.” Was this article referencing the Women’s Bureau visit to the plant or was this a completely unrelated general interest piece? It’s a stretch. A quick search of WorldCat reveals that the Smithsonian holds this particular magazine; the Smithsonian catalog confirms that the specific issue is available. I could try to get a copy of this article through interlibrary loan but I’m sensing a dead end. Seeing the physical item held by NARA might help; however, it’s unlikely that useful information scrawled on the back of the photograph wouldn’t have been recorded in the catalog record when the photo was digitized. There may be other information in the series of archival materials in which this photo lives and that may be worth checking into if I’m ever in the area. There’s a good chance that this photograph was taken in late 1942.

Share the Love (Sharing Metadata)

Tags contributed to digital object

Metadata is a love note to the future, as Jason Scott (@textfiles) once said. If you’ve assembled some research about an image, share it! The National Archives encourages Citizen Archivists to add searchable tags to their digital collections. Social tagging is a different activity than the subject analysis that cataloging and metadata professionals engage in (a fine topic for a future post); both activities are useful for discovery, so I used both tags (what the photo is of) and terms resulting from subject analysis (what the photo is about).

I contributed the following tags, using a combination of terms taken from thesauri and natural-language terms that people are likely to use in a search: Women in war, Factory workers, Airplane factories, B-25 Mitchell, Kansas City (Kan.), “North American Aviation, Inc., of Kansas”, NAA, “Gray, Evelyn T., 1909-1999”, ca. 1942, World War II, WWII. The terms I chose and why I chose them (why “Factory workers” and not “Hairnets”?) are topics for another time.

The Work isn’t Done!

Feeling inspired? Disappointed/incensed that none of my tags addressed race (#blacklivesmatter)? Did you find Pearlyne’s birth and death dates?? [4] There’s plenty more to add to this and many other primary sources. Create an account at NARA and start tagging.

Finding Folk

For quick, “couch genealogy,” is the resource to beat. However, is pay-to-play. Fortunately, most public libraries pay for a subscription. If your library doesn’t provide access to, head over to one of the many websites that search the Social Security Death Index. My favorite free-to-search option is You’ll receive the following information from search results: first, last name and middle initial; birth and death years; state of last residence; and state in which the social security number was issued. If you want to see more about a person in the results list, you’ll have to sign up for a subscription. Another free resource for finding dead people is

Note though, that even official documents, such as birth/death certificates, marriage licenses, census records, service records, and yes, gravestones, are susceptible to error.


Department of Labor. Women’s Bureau. (1940-1945). Evelyn T. Gray, Riveter, and Pearlyne Smiley, Bucker, Complete a Job on Center Section of a Bomber. Records of the Women’s Bureau, 1892-1995. Retrieved from

Female workers of North American Aviation, Inc., “Keep ’em flying”. (1943 Jan 30). The Pittsburgh Courier (1911-1950) Retrieved from (log in required)

Macias, Richard. (2005). “‘We all had a cause’: Kansas City’s bomber plant, 1940-1945.” Kansas History, 28(4): 244-261. Retrieved from

  1. B-25s were famously used by the Doolittle Raiders.
  2. I don’t do this type of research much but if you want to read more on my brand of ‘couch genealogy,’ see the section Finding Folk, at the end of this post.
  3. OCR, or Optical Character Recognition. Wikipedia has a decent explanation:
  4. I didn’t add Pearlyne’s name because I didn’t have anything unique to add that wasn’t already in the catalog record.