MARAC Philly 2013: The Naval History Collections Panel

Contributed by Bryan J. Dickerson

Since colonial times, the history of the American people has been intrinsically tied to maritime commerce and the need for naval forces to protect that commerce and defend American shores against foreign enemies.  The commemorations of the 200th Anniversary of the War of 1812, the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War, and the 70th Anniversary of World War Two in recent years have brought about renewed scholarly and public interest in these historical events.

Given the city of Philadelphia’s important role in American naval and maritime history, it was most appropriate that the MARAC Philly Conference devoted one of its concurrent sessions to the discussion of “Naval History Collections in the Mid-Atlantic Region.”   As one of the organizers of this session, I was very fortunate to have four excellent archivists/scholars to participate in the discussion of naval history collections.

Gregory Ellis of the Naval History and Heritage Command served as Panel Chairman and gave the first presentation.   Appearing as a private scholar and not as a representative of the NHHC, Greg began with a photographic tour of the Philadelphia Navy Yard as it appears today.  Then he moved on to an overview and discussion of the NHHC, its facility at the Washington Navy Yard, its organization and its collection holdings which document and preserve the 238-year history of the U.S. Navy.  The NHHC preserves a broad array of naval history documents and artifacts including deck logs, personal papers, photographs, and Command Operations Reports.

Our next speaker was David D’Onofrio, Special Collections Librarian of the Nimitz Library of the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland.  David was also appearing as a private scholar and not a representative of the Nimitz Library.    Entitled “Through the Navy’s Eyes:  The U.S. Navy and American History,” his presentation was a unique approach to the subject of naval history.  “The history of the Navy is the History of America,” he said, “because, when you think about it, the military is really a microcosm of American society. Everything society goes through, the military goes through…not always at the same time, or in the same way, but the story is largely the same.”  He discussed how such themes as women’s rights/equality, black history, LGBT history, art and science have impacted the history of the Navy.

Following D’Onofrio was Megan Good, Director of the J. Welles Henderson Archives & Library at the Independence Seaport Museum  in Philadelphia.  In addition to being home to the Spanish-American war cruiser USS Olympia and the World War Two submarine USS Becuna, the Seaport Museum boasts an extensive collection of naval history and maritime records.  In her presentation, Megan provided a comprehensive overview of their holdings which include the personal papers of early American naval heroes Commodores John Barry, Stephen Decatur and Thomas Truxtun, and records and artifacts from the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard and the RMS Titanic.  The Henderson Archives also holds the records of several important defunct Delaware River shipbuilding companies such as New York Shipbuilding Company of Camden, the Sun Shipbuilding Company of Chester and William Cramp and Sons Ship and Engine Building Company.

Our final speaker of the session was Tina Ligon, an Archivist with the National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland.  Tina is also a Doctoral Candidate at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland.  Her dissertation examines black education in early 20th Century Cincinnati, Ohio.   Her presentation at MARAC Philly was entitled “Deck Logs:  Two Four Letter Words.” Deck logs document the operational and administrative proceedings of Navy ships and shore commands.  During her presentation, Tina discussed her experiences in coordinating a major multi-year NARA project to organize, process, and digitize tens of thousands of Navy deck logs.

In ninety minutes time, our four speakers made an extensive presentation on the naval history collections at four major archival facilities in Washington DC, Maryland and Pennsylvania.  I am deeply grateful to them for their participation in the MARAC Philly “Naval History Collections in the Mid-Atlantic Region” session.

About the Author – Bryan J. Dickerson is the Archivist for the Municipal Government of Brick Township, New Jersey.   He served as a member of the Program Committee for MARAC Philly 2013.

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