Early Aerial Photos Available on Web Site

Status of early air photo digitization efforts.During the past decade, the Illinois State Geological Survey (ISGS) has been engaged in an ongoing project to digitize the earliest aerial photographs of Illinois and to place them in a digital archive for online distribution through the Illinois Natural Resources Geospatial Data Clearinghouse(Illinois Clearinghouse). Funding from the 2008 Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) grant allowed the ISGS Library to digitize 953 photographs from four additional counties (Alexander, Jackson, Perry, and Randolph) and add them to the Illinois Clearinghouse. Through the ongoing collaborative efforts of the ISGS Library and the Illinois State Library, 62 of 102 Illinois counties are now Internet accessible.

As the ISGS and Illinois State Library worked toward completing the Illinois Historical Aerial Photography (ILHAP) project, more history about the aerial photograph collection was discovered. For instance, although the first aerial picture of Illinois was considered complete in 1939, further research revealed that two additional years were actually needed to get a "good" picture of the entire state. During the first four years of the original aerial photography, several new and improved aerial photographic techniques were established and standardized, leading to retakes of several thousand photographs in 1940 and 1941 over counties that were originally completed in 1936 and 1937. Well over 50,000 photographs were taken between 1936 and 1941, but only about 33,000 photographic prints from that period remain.

The original photographic prints were placed into controlled collections used by various government agencies and learning institutions. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) retained the immense collection of original cellulose nitrate film negatives until the 1960s when it transferred the collection to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) for safekeeping. Nitrate negatives, however, are unstable unless stored in climate-controlled areas. After a fire at a NARA storage facility in 1978, NARA decided it no longer wanted to store nitrate-based film and began a program to copy the original large-format nitrate film onto much safer, small-format acetate film. Unfortunately, the original negatives for the early Illinois aerial photographs were those that were destroyed. Many of the resulting small-format duplicate negatives are of poor quality and produce unusable photographic prints. Thus, the existing contact prints made directly from the original negatives are the only reliable high-quality images that Illinois has as a record of its first statewide aerial picture, and these are deteriorating.

In March 2001, the ILHAP project was initiated at the ISGS to digitally capture these existing original prints using exacting standards and make those digitized images Internet accessible to an expanded audience. Today there is an overwhelming interest and desire by the public to view these aerial time capsules, yet securing funding to complete this archive has been, and will continue to be, a challenge. The hope is to complete the statewide archive so that once again the first picture of Illinois will be available for all to see.