May 19, 2022

Digital Collections: JFK Library Publishes Online 1,700 Fragile Nitrate Negative Kennedy Family Photographs

Update September 17, 2018: Media Coverage

Rare Kennedy Photos Go Online, Thanks to JFK Library (via Boston Globe)

Rare Kennedy Photos Go Inside America’s Most Famous Family (AP via USA Today)

From the JFK Library in Boston:

2018-09-17_17-24-13The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum has completed a year-long effort to make available online approximately 1,700 vulnerable nitrate negative photographs from its Kennedy Family Collection.

The photographs provide a unique glimpse of the Kennedy Family from before President Kennedy’s birth through the early 1950s.

The effort was funded through a generous grant by the Fund II Foundation and was part of the Library’s Centennial Celebration of President Kennedy’s birth. The photographs were donated by Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, the President’s mother, beginning in 1975.

The nitrate negatives comprise a subset of the photographic materials in the Kennedy Family Collection and include snapshots of John F. Kennedy, members of his immediate and extended family, as well as family friends, originating from before his birth to the early 1950s. They also feature photographs that capture JFK’s mother, Rose Fitzgerald (later, Kennedy), as a young woman during her travels abroad in the early 1900s. Similar to all family photo collections, the Kennedy Family Collection tells those unique but shared stories of daily home life, vacations, holidays, and other celebratory occasions.

“The Kennedy Family was very good at documenting everything from vacations to family parties. These nitrates are a treasure trove of history giving us a wonderful glimpse at President Kennedy’s childhood and his family,” said Karen Adler Abramson, chief archivist for the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. “We are delighted to be able to share these photos with the public online for the first time.”

The nitrate negatives also tell another story about the advent of amateur photography and the enthusiastic and prolific users of a new visual medium. The Kennedy and Fitzgerald families stayed on the cutting edge of camera technology; they used the latest types of film formats and sizes available during the first half of the 20th century – including 35mm roll film and 3 x 4 inch single sheet or pack film.

“These nitrates are not only part of the Kennedy history, but because they are also part of photographic history,” said digitization archivist Nicola Mantzaris. “Even the photograph processing envelopes can tell us about the brands and technology that was popular at that particular time.”

The nitrate negatives are extremely fragile. While some of the photographs have had some degradation, most are still well preserved. Cellulose nitrate materials are stored separately in a cold storage environment where freezing temperatures arrest eventual decomposition. Preservation reformatting and/or digitization is common archival practice when it comes to endangered materials like nitrates. The digitization of these materials allow not only for greater access, but ensure the physical negatives remain safely preserved in their original format and condition.

The digitized nitrates can be viewed as part of the Kennedy Family Collection.

To view the finding aid, click here.

Background: Blog Posts from JFK Librart

Behind-the-Scenes with Archives Digitization Staff (June 23, 2017)

Kennedy Family Collection Nitrate Negatives: A Centennial Digitization Initiative (April 13, 2017)

About Gary Price

Gary Price ( is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. Before launching INFOdocket, Price and Shirl Kennedy were the founders and senior editors at ResourceShelf and DocuTicker for 10 years. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at, and is currently a contributing editor at Search Engine Land.