What’s in the National Archives and how’s it organized?

Today’s post comes from Carol Buswell, education specialist at the National Archives at Seattle.

Archives are almost nothing like libraries, except that they are open to the public for research purposes.  Be prepared to learn something completely new.

Reindeer at airstrip on St. Paul Island
Reindeer at airstrip on St. Paul Island, 1/19/1967, from the Records of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

First, let’s talk about what you’re probably used to: libraries. Libraries collect documents.  They are in competition with other libraries, historical societies, museums, etc. for collections of material.  This means you might find more records on your topic in several other collections as well.  They usually file their records by subject or topic.

Most archives, particularly government archives, are repositories for permanent documents.

  • The records are sent there automatically from agency offices.  These documents are kept for historical or operational reasons. So you’ll find permanently valuable records of U.S. federal government agencies only in the National Archives and almost never anywhere else.  The records might be in several different National Archives buildings, but you won’t need to look for them in the collections of other organizations.  They won’t be there.
  • Each government’s documents are saved in that government’s archives.  U.S. federal agencies send their documents to the National Archives.  State government agencies send their documents to their state archives.  County government agencies send their documents to their county archives.  City government agencies send their documents to their city archives.
  • Most archives do not organize records by topic, but instead use filing systems that resemble the system you might use in your own filing cabinet.  Imagine trying to file your own papers by topic!  Would you file your medical records under “car accident” or “Iraq War” or “effects of plastic surgery?”  Nope, you usually file them under “Medical” so you can find them in the future and leave it at that.  In the same way, archival records are filed in whatever system each contributing agency thought was best for their day to day business.
  • Individual items (the documents themselves) aren’t usually indexed or catalogued.  It’s possible, through diligent searching, to find documents that nobody has seen for hundreds of years.

This kind of organization determines the approach you would use to find documents in the National Archives—in person or online.   There are several different approaches you could take.

Road Construction in Alaska
Road Construction – Alaska, Records of the Forest Service

Here’s one. Think of events that might have happened surrounding your topic and what different federal agencies might have been involved. Then search by each agency name, plus a word that the documents might have been filed under.  For instance, if you’re looking for Alaska’s response to the Cold War, think of things that might have happened as a result. Maybe:

  • more military bases and airstrips were built,
  • roads were improved, or
  • military drills increased.

Then think of related federal agencies that might have been involved:

  • U.S. Army
  • U.S. Navy
  • U.S. Air Force
  • The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (who build things)
  • The U.S. Nuclear Regulation Authority
  • Office of Civilian Defense
  • U.S. Coast Guard

Next, narrow your topic by your particular interest … in this case “Alaska.”  Then narrow further by time period, say 1945-1975.

Screen Shot from Video Exercise Polar Siege
A Screen Shot from the Video “Exercise Polar Siege,” 1/29–2/1/1964, from the Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, available at http://research.archives.gov/description/29719

See, it’s not difficult.  But it is a completely different way of thinking! An understanding of these concepts can help both you and your students find and use archival records more easily.  With over 12 billion (mostly) primary sources in the National Archives, this can be a great help to you and your students alike.

What types of records would you keep in your own “archives” at home or in your classroom?

4 thoughts on “What’s in the National Archives and how’s it organized?

  1. Well done, Carol. Your post should be published as an information sheet and given to every new researcher who receives a NARA card.

  2. Aside from research purposes, we preserve our historical documents so that we can obtain the information we need to exercise our rights and responsibilities and also hold our government accountable for their actions. So it is important that we know how to find these documents in National Archives. Thank you for sharing this informative post!

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