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Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in Broadside (2023 No. 1), the magazine of the Library of Virginia.

The Library of Virginia project entitled “War, Remembrance, and the Power of Records: Digitizing the Library of Virginia’s WWII Separation Notices” will make more than 250,000 separation notices of World War II–era Virginia service members accessible online through community outreach transcription. This three-year initiative focuses on digitizing the vast collection and then working with a wide array of community and school groups, family members, educators, and other individuals to uncover details and fill gaps in the stories of these individuals, potentially making connections and discoveries about the people of this era of history. The Library aims to launch the public participation portion of the project this spring or summer.

After leaving the U.S. military, individuals received official documentation noting separation from their branch of service. The original separation notices, which were multi-copy forms, were kept on file at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri. A fire at the center on July 12, 1973, however, destroyed approximately 16 to 18 million personnel files, including those that documented service in World War II. In most cases, one copy of each separation notice was earmarked for the appropriate state’ veterans’ employment representative of the War Manpower Commission in order to ensure that individuals could secure employment once they returned to civilian life. Thankfully, Virginia’s employment commission copies of these forms had been transferred to the Library of Virginia in 1950, alleviating some of the record-loss distress caused by the St. Louis fire.

The Library’s World War II Separation Notices Collection documents demographics, civilian life, and military service history for more than 250,000 men and women from across the state. Until recently, these records had been available only to veterans or their next of kin because of privacy restrictions on the content of the files. The records are no longer restricted, however, and soon will provide new research opportunities for genealogists, students, and historians, opening a window on the experiences of ordinary people during one of the most formative events in our history.

Between August and October 2022, the Library shipped the first 55 of 80 boxes of materials to its digitization vendor, Backstage Library Works. After digitization, Backstage staff members will capture basic metadata elements for each individual, including name, branch of service, military occupation, military serial number, and hometown. The Library will then load the separation notices into a platform for crowdsourced transcription and indexing projects called From the Page, where the public can fill in additional details, including personal information such as date and place of birth, physical description, race, sex, marital status, and civilian occupation, as well as military details like places and dates of service, military occupation, battles, decorations and citations, wounds received in action, and reason for separation. Once completed, the images and metadata will be available for research in the Library’s digital collections. In addition, the raw data generated during the public crowdsourcing phase will be added to the Virginia Open Data Portal, making the entire dataset accessible to demographers and data scientists interested in race and ethnicity and socioeconomic trends. The project will allow people to engage with this era in new ways, asking questions of the data they never have previously.

“The Library’s mission is one of service first and foremost to the people of the commonwealth and to those around the world who seek to know and understand Virginia’s complex past, present and future,” said Librarian of Virginia Sandra G. Treadway. “As we will celebrate our 200th anniversary this year, the WWII separation notices project will be a signature activity that will touch the lives of millions of Virginians.”

The “War, Remembrance, and the Power of Records: Digitizing the Library of Virginia’s WWII Separation Notices” project received a $315,000 National Endowment for the Humanities grant through the Library of Virginia Foundation. The Library was among the recipients of $33.17 million in grants for 245 humanities projects across the country announced by the NEH in April 2022.

The project is funded through NEH’s Humanities Collections and Reference Resources grant program and, in part, by NEH’s special initiative, A More Perfect Union. This effort will help Americans commemorate the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 2026 by exploring, reflecting on, or telling the stories of our quest for a more just, inclusive, and sustainable society throughout our history.

“We are sincerely grateful for the support and recognition of this collection’s national importance by NEH,” said Scott Dodson, executive director of the Library of Virginia Foundation. “As the Commonwealth of Virginia’s oldest institution dedicated to collecting, preserving, and sharing Virginia’s history and culture, we are thrilled to make these records accessible and searchable for family members, historians, and the public.”

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