Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Trolling The History Warehouses – Part Two - The Library of Congress

Like the National Archives, the Library of Congress (LOC) is a key repository of documents related to the founding and history of the United States of America.
Established in 1800 by an act of Congress as a reference library for the legislative branch, today’s LOC has a broad mandate to “further the progress of knowledge and creativity for the benefit of the American people.” It performs this and its other functions from three imposing buildings on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

Of most interest to writers and genealogists is the vast collection of books, newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, technical reports, personal papers, maps, audio and video recordings, microforms, sheet music, manuscripts posters, prints and jeepers, a lot of other stuff. The entire LOC collection numbers over 150 million items—a fraction of NARA’s holdings, but by no means a piddling amount. 

One of the great features of finding stuff at the LOC is the amount of their material that has been, in one way or another, brought into the digital world. Peruse the list of holdings in the Manuscript Division and you’ll note that a box-level—and sometimes even a folder-level—finding aid for each collection is available for online viewing. That makes finding stuff a lot easier, but for the most part you’ll still need to request the relevant department to reproduce the files you seek.

How do we start our troll through the Library of Congress? The well organized Home Page is cleanly designed for easy navigation. You’ll note nine topic windows in the center that will lead you deeper into the site. On the right side is a list of slightly more specific topics. Up at the top are two links that will help make the digital LOC experience fun and fruitful: DigitalCollections  and Library Catalogs

Click on Digital Collections. Way back in 1994 the LOC began to digitize selections of its original holdings to put online. As the Library likes to say, they provide “one of the largest bodies of noncommercial high-quality content on the Internet . . . [so that] those who may never come to Washington can gain access to the treasures of the nation’s library.” In this regard, the LOC is way ahead of NARA. And as someone obsessed with finding stuff, I say bless ‘em.

Let’s delve. Click on American History and Culture. That brings up a page with a list of 18 topics. Our example subject for today is the U.S. Army Air Forces 306th Bomb Group (Heavy) based out of Thurleigh, Bedfordshire, England during WWII. So click on Veterans History and then Search The Veterans Collections.

A search box offering a number of options appears. Type in “306th bomb group”, and tick-off “service unit/ship,” “World War II,” and “Army Air Forces/Corps.” Then hit GO.

This should bring up 64+ hits of names of veterans who were in some way connected with the 306th. You’ll notice that about 20% of the  listings have a View Digital Collection icon. This means that some aspect of that fellow’s file is accessible online—audio or video interviews, and/or interview transcripts, and sometimes photographs. 

Let’s see what Blackshaw, Kenneth Dean, has to say online. Our click brings up a short bio and a list of the digital materials available. In his case there is an interview transcript and a 6-page biography. 

You can use your browser’s Find box to look for specific names, places, or events within the transcript. What does he say about the missions he flew? There are three entries, one of which will tell you he flew a total of 35. 

The biography of Lt Col Blackshaw is an un-indexed document scan, and is therefore not digitally searchable. You’ll have to do it manually.

Where there is no View Digital Collection listed next to a name in the collection, you can still check to see what material is available. In the case of Norman Eugene Outcalt, there is an oral history on DVD. And John Henry Roberts has a interview transcription that is available, possibly as a digital file. In cases like these, again, you’ll need to contact LOC directly to see about getting reproductions.

The Library of Congress’s Manuscript Division holds the papers of several hundred prominent Americans and organizations, with extensive PDF finding aids. In some cases large numbers of the original papers are available in digital form. The collection of the Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers is a splendid example—LOC has over 51,000 images from 4,700 separate items.

Click on BrowseSeries to see the index of general Bell topics. Under Laboratory Notebooks you can view the entire contents of two volumes of the famous inventor’s personal notebooks—one from 1910, and the other covering 1891-1893.

A similar online collection is available of Abraham Lincoln’s papers (61,000 images, 10,000 transcriptions) and the 19th century abolitionist Frederick Douglass’s papers (38,000 images). The Library’s Thomas Jefferson collection is the largest at LOC, with 83,000 images.

If you’re looking for illustrations for your book or article, the Library of Congress is a great place to start. They have digitized over 1 million images from their collections. From the main home page you can access the Prints and Photographs Online Collection (PPOC).  There is an especially good selection of Civil War views (7,000). But let’s take a different tack.

Scroll down to the Prokudin-GorskiiCollection  — one of the most charming holdings at the Library. This set of two thousand-some photographs was acquired by the Library in 1948.

It’s the work of Russian photographer Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii, who in the early 20th century set out to document the life and people of his native land. What’s unique about these photographs is that most are in color, made with an unusual process involving three separate negatives, each exposed through a different filter (red, green, blue). When combined in projection (or digitally by the LOC) the result is a color photograph of extraordinary richness.

The photo below, of the Emir of Bukhara, is a splendid example of P-G’s work. Downloaded from the 204kb LOC color jpeg file, it has not been retouched in any way (save for cropping).

We’ve only scratched the surface of what stuff is available at the Library of Congress. Not only does the LOC have tons of downloadable stuff, but every day it’s putting more and more online. Their website is well worth bookmarking, and checking in on frequently.
Next time we’ll delve deeper into History Warehouses, with a look at smaller and  local repositories. 

If this post was helpful or interesting to you, please let me know. I’m always looking for ways to improve the blog. 

Disclaimer: The description of web pages are accurate as of the post date. Like everything else in this digital world of ours, they can change in the blink of an eye.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Trolling The History Warehouses – Part One - The National Archives

Over the past decade the number of pages of historical documents available on the Internet has exploded exponentially. And so too has the number of repositories offering digital access to their troves. It’s a very cool phenomenon.

There are actually two key ways archives and libraries are using the web to share their collections. First, they are putting their catalogs and finding aids online. And second, they’re posting digital scans of original historical documents and images.

This series of posts is an overview of where these things are and how to access them. 

Who’s Got the Good Stuff?
           National Archives
           Library of Congress
           State Archives
           County & City Archives
           National, State, Local Libraries
           National, State, Local Historical Societies
           College, University, Institutional, Corporate Libraries and Special Collection Departments.
           Historical Departments of the Armed Forces
           Private Collections 

Let’s take a look at each of these categories, starting with the National Archives.

The National Archives
In the United States the job of collecting and preserving documents related to the Federal government and its military lies in the hands of the National Archives and Records Administration, or NARA.

NARA has two main repositories. 

The National Archives Building in Washington, DC (Archives I), houses textual and microfilm records relating to genealogy, American Indians, pre-WW II military and naval-maritime matters, the New Deal, the District of Columbia, the Federal courts, and Congress.

The National Archives in College Park (Archives II), houses “modern military” records; civilian records (created after 1900); over 15 million maps, charts, architectural drawings, and erection plans for ships; electronic records; motion pictures, and sound and video recordings; and over 8 million still photographs, dating from 1850. 

In addition to these giant warehouses of history, NARA operates 15 regional facilities and 14 presidential libraries (from Herbert Hoover on).
The total number of items stored by all these places numbers in the multiple billions—or as NARA like to say, “Laid end to end, the sheets of paper in our holdings would circle the Earth over 57 times!” And new records, today mostly electronic, are coming in at the rate of 1.4 billion a year. Yikes! How the heck do you find stuff at NARA?

NARA and the Digital Universe – Looking For Documents

Let’s start at the beginning: the Archives’ Research Our Records page.

 At the left is a clickable box, “Search Online.” Click on the second entry, Online Research Tools and Ways to Search Online. This page gives you links to the various ways NARA data can be accessed online. Currently the most useful systems are ARC (Archival Research Catalog), AAD (Access to Archival Databases), and the new OPA (Online Public Access), which is being developed to provide a global search capability of NARA textual and electronic records. OPA will eventually replace ARC and AAD.

Curious about what microfilm holdings are at NARA? Click on the Microfilm Catalog. The search interface is a bit clumsy, so it will take some time to figure how to find this stuff. To view microfilm you either have to go to the relevant Archives or order copies (which can be done online).

For GenealogistsNARA offers a wide range of genealogical material on its websites. At the bottom left of Research Our Records (see above) is a link called Research Your Ancestry (the tree). This page, Resources for Genealogists, contains a number of genealogy-related links, as well as useful tips and resources for researching family histories.

You can get into the newly-released 1940 Federal Census but only to browse census images organized by enumeration districts (i.e., full pages of digitized census returns). For detailed census searches NARA suggests you go to or (both are fee-for-service sites). Navigation down through the Resources for Genealogists page levels is pretty easy.

Guide to Federal Records is a very useful tool to get a broad sense of how topics at the Archives are organized. Each topic is given a Record Group (RG) number. For example, let’s check out the files of General Douglas MacArthur’s command during WWII. We know from looking on Wikipedia that he fought mainly in the Southwest Pacific. Let’s see what NARA’s got.

Over on the right of the Guide to Federal Records page is a link called Record Groups By Topic Clusters (circled in red, above). Clicking on that brings up a list of general subjects, and below that, a lengthy list of the actual record groups—so lengthy that we’re going to use our browser to search for our stuff (in Firefox, click on Edit, then Find). Type in “Southwest.” That turns up two RGs—496, General Headquarters, Southwest Pacific Area and U.S. Army Forces, Pacific (World War II); and 387, Southwestern Power Administration. RG496 looks like the best bet.

Go back to the top of the page and click on Search the Guide to Federal Records. Type “496” into the Go Directly to Record Group #. That brings up a page headed “Records of General Headquarters, Southwest Pacific Area,” which gives you an overview of all the records at NARA pertaining to General MacArthur’s command during WWII.
Here we can access OPA (right hand box) to see if there are any digital files of original documents or a more complete finding aid available online. Alas, there are not. So to thoroughly plumb RG496 you’ll either need to visit Archives II in person or hire a researcher to do it for you. 

But . . . if you have a good idea of what you’re looking for, you can also make an online research request to NARA. It may take a couple of weeks to hear back from a specialist (who usually provides you with a list of things she’s found). That information in hand, you can place a duplication order.

NARA and the Digital Universe - Finding Aids

Archives of all ilk have created finding aids that help immeasurably in finding stuff.
A finding aid is a sort of index of a record group or a collection. Sometimes the aid (what NARA calls a records guide) is nothing more than a paragraph of text broadly listing what’s in a particular catalogued topic. And sometimes you’ll stumble on an aid that lists every folder in every box. These are rare. NARA has a few—one of the most ambitious and detailed being Dr. Greg Bradsher’s team’s Japanese WarCrimes And Related Topics: A Guide To Records At The National Archives This 1,717 page fully-searchable PDF provides amazing minutia about files on people, places, and events concerning the investigations and trials. Want to know about the WWII Japanese admiral, Fukudome Shigeru? A search tells you there are three files available in the collection. The first is about atrocities on the central Philippines island of Cebu – Box 1066, Closed Case Files: F-9. The second has documents or maps related to Fukudome – Box 1275, folder #118. And the third is in Box 2003, Miscellaneous Correspondence File, an item entitled “Atrocities Carried Out by Japanese Submarines (a report of Fukudome, Commander in Chief, 10thZone Fleet).”

To accompany this massive volume is a 240 page PDF called Researching Japanese War Crimes that includes seven essays about the collection written by experts in the field, and tips on how to search it.

To be honest, this NARA finding aid is, in my experience, unique in its detail.

More typical finding aids at the Archives look like the one below from the San Francisco Regional Branch. It features specific categories of topics in their collection of, for example, RG313– Records of Naval Operating Forces, 1921-1966

If you want to know about U.S. naval bases in the Pacific area during WWII, cursor down to that section. You’ll see that the files in this group include correspondence, war diaries, and reports for those particular places. For box or folder numbers you’ll need to contact the Archives directly.

For the most part, at this point in history, relatively few NARA collections have online finding aids of any kind (other than the general overview description mentioned above, and fewer still online scanned documents. But every week they add more, so if you can’t find what you’re looking for today, try again next week. Remember PPI (Patience, Perseverance, and Imagination – see my first Finding Stuff post)? Well, when you’re trolling the National Archives you’ll need lots of each.

You can see that searching NARA is a bit complicated because the holdings are so vast, and the listings so dense.
In the next post we’ll look at researching at another branch of the U.S. government—The Library of Congress.

If this post was helpful or interesting to you, please let me know. I’m always looking for ways to improve the blog.

Monday, January 7, 2013


This past Sunday there was a fascinating piece in The New York Times about the pitfalls of researching. “Rapturous Research” by Sean Pidgeon (a publisher of academic books and journals at Wiley) tells us about his addiction to finding stuff. This malady even has a name: “research rapture.” I too suffer from this affliction. There. It's out.

It’s an insidious condition. A commission to write an article might come in and I'll get busy with the research. And busier. And busiest. The stuff I find! Hot stuff. Cool stuff. Lots of stuff. Way too much stuff. As I plunge deeper and deeper into the minutia of the subject, rapture overwhelms me at every newly found mite and mote, whether they are useful or not. Just one more link. Let me click on just one more link. Ah ha! Just as I suspected, a nugget, a real nugget, a fact that no one else has ever found (in reality just a piece of meaningless trivia).

Research can become the be-all and end-all. Why bother to write when you can search? Writing just gets in the way. Research rapture overwhelms the process (as most addictions are wont to do). It can become a crippling affliction. Perhaps it's a form of writer's block.

Is there no overcoming this malady? Am I my own worst enabler? Is it time to see a counselor? Maybe I should switch careers - raise African violets instead (Saintpaulia, a genus of species of perennial flowering plants in the family Gesneriaceae, native to eastern tropical Africa. The African Violet Society of America (AVSA), founded in 1946, and headquartered in Beaumont, Texas, has over four thousand members. Chilled violets turn dark within 24 hours, become water-soaked, then wither.  But the flowers adapt well to typical growing conditions found in . . . ). Help!

Any other sufferers out there?