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Over the past decade the number of pages of historical documents available on the Internet has exploded exponentially.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 And second, they’re posting digital scans of original historical documents and images.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.

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