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Illinois Historical Aerial Photography Collection History

Biplane, pilot and aerial photographer

On May 12, 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt signed into law the Agricultural Adjustment Act, which was originally administered by the United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Adjustment Administration (USDA-AAA). Since the mid-1930s, the USDA-AAA, now the USDA Farm Services Agency, periodically acquired nationwide aerial photographs by county. These aerial photographs were originally used by the USDA-AAA to assess the nation's agricultural lands and served as the basis for the national soil surveys.


USDA-AAA aerial photographs are widely recognized as a unique and detailed record of the cultural and physical landscapes of Illinois. Aerial photography is intensively used for diverse purposes by government agencies, surveyors, planners, consulting scientists, engineers and other individuals. These purposes include determination of past land uses, restoration of natural areas, assessing historical changes in stream dynamics, and a variety of other applications.


Statewide coverage of USDA-AAA aerial photographs was first achieved for Illinois from 1936 through 1941. Approximately 35,350 individual frames were acquired for complete coverage of the state.


Because of deterioration and stability issues, the original 7-inch by 9-inch and 9-inch by 9-inch nitrocellulose (silver nitrate) negatives were destroyed at the National Archives in the 1980s. The United States Navy and the National Archives made small-format copies of the negatives prior to the destruction of the original negatives. These copies, and the photographic prints made from them, are of extremely poor quality. Therefore, photographic paper prints made from the original large-format negatives are the best remaining representation of this photograph collection.


Nearly complete photographic paper print collections for Illinois exist at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources Office of Water Resources and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Map and Geography Library. Smaller regional print collections are also located at many Illinois libraries and governmental agencies. None of the collections are complete, however, and only limited preservation efforts are in place to ensure the permanence of these print collections.


Unfortunately, the increased use of these aerial photographs has resulted in an undetermined number of prints becoming faded, worn, defaced, or lost. As a result, access to these unique print collections is becoming increasingly restricted. It is critical that the single best set of these prints be preserved in a permanent digital archive to ensure their availability for future users. The primary objectives of the Illinois Historical Aerial Photography project (ILHAP) are to develop and provide Internet access to this digital archive.