A review of The National Archives at College Park, Maryland, United States of America.
I have been to the US National Archives many times over the last five years; it is a place of wonder, excitement, and sometimes deep frustration. My research there has spanned a wide range of topics, including the history of laboratories, patent drawings, international development assistance, and military technology. My longest research trips were for my dissertation, which was a history of the mapping sciences in the twentieth century. In tracing the transition between paper mapping and electronic systems like GPS, I ended up looking at records from several agencies — including the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey, the War Department, the State Department, the Army (including the Army Corps of Engineers), and the Federal Aviation Agency — along with many records from World War I and World War II. My main interest was to connect practical changes in mapping technology to larger conceptual questions: what it means to map, what a map is for, and how maps structure territory.
The National Archives are a very strange place indeed, and can provide direct experience of adjectives like “Kafkaesque” and “Foucauldean.” You should come fully prepared for complex bureaucracy and labyrinthine rules; you may also encounter security procedures including metal detectors guarded and patrolled by armed personnel — more on this later. Rather than give a litany of the challenges that may lie in wait, I will instead try to offer something more like a survival guide. My advice can be divided into two categories: finding useful records and managing your time.
Finding Records. Because the National Archives are so vast, I will not attempt to describe any particular group of records. I can, however, offer three pieces of general advice.
(1) Keep in mind that there are two “National Archives” in the DC area: one is downtown, and the other is about ten miles away in College Park, Maryland. These locations are known as “NARA I” and “NARA II,” respectively — NARA being the National Archives and Records Administration. NARA II or “Archives II” is much larger and will be the home base for most projects, but you might need to go downtown as well. The important point here is that the two locations do not necessarily communicate with each other. There are some very basic descriptions of each location’s holdings on the NARA website, but the archivists at NARA II essentially have no knowledge of what is deposited at NARA I, and vice versa. (The same goes for the various sub-parts of NARA II: if you do not find anything in the “textual records” department, you might still have luck in “cartographic records,” “microfilm,” and so on.)
(2) I have found three ways of locating records; none is perfect.
The first method is to contact an archivist before visiting. If you ask specific questions and mention specific projects or individuals, you may get a response with some very helpful reconnaissance (although often after some delay, perhaps via snail mail).
The second method is to use the Archival Research Catalog (ARC), which is easy to use but is by no means complete. (As of Fall 2012, it was 75% complete “at the series level,” where a “series” can be a very large collection like “World War II Combat Operations Reports, compiled 1941–1946,” which contains 6034 boxes. Even when all series have been cataloged, there will still be huge numbers of “entries,” boxes, and folders that remain invisible.)
The third method is to consult paper finding aids. Each NARA department — textual, cartographic, etc. — has its own set of finding aids. In the textual records department, there is a special finding-aids room, divided into two halves: one for civilian records and one for military records. NARA’s paper finding aids can vary greatly in quality. In my experience, they seem to range from being somewhat useful to being hardly recognizable as finding aids at all. For example, for some record groups the finding aid is actually just a huge (and almost completely useless) binder of accession paperwork organized chronologically by the date that the records arrived at College Park. Some of the more reasonable finding aids have been published and may be available in libraries or online; they have titles like Inventory of the Records of the Hydrographic Office or Preliminary Inventory of the Records of the Coast and Geodetic Survey. Be warned, however, that significant translation may be necessary to turn a finding-aid entry number into an actual box at your table (see point 3 below).
Also note that numbers from the “Guide to Federal Records” online (such as 23.3.5) will probably not be helpful at all. I still do not know what these numbers mean.
(3) The process of finding records is entirely separate from the process of actually requesting them. The best thing to do is to ask an archivist in the finding-aids room how to fill out a “pull slip” for the records that interest you. It will not be intuitive, and you should not attempt this without guidance. If you make even a small error (either in transcription or procedure), your request will be returned unfilled and you will have to start all over again. As just one example, you may find a something online with an Archival Research Catalog (ARC) identifier of 2918412; the ARC description will give you a “Master Location Register” (MLR) number of NM6 7A, and you will also want to note the “container” (i.e., box) number of 5693. None of these numbers, however, will actually end up on your request slip. Instead, you will need to consult a set of binders that can translate an MLR number into a shelf location. And since making photocopies or photos from these binders is strictly prohibited, there is no way to do this translation ahead of time.
Managing Your Time. NARA has extremely strict rules about time. The biggest headache is that you are only allowed to request records at four or five specific times each day, known as “pull times.” After you successfully fill out your pull slips, they are deposited into a bin that is emptied only at the next pull time. Then you will probably have to wait about an hour before your records finally arrive in the reading room. (Note that you will not receive any notice when your records arrive; you will have to check a ledger periodically at the pull desk to see if your records are claimable.)
To illustrate the challenge that this system poses, imagine that you arrive for your first visit on a Monday at 9:00am sharp. You may only get to the reading room around 9:45, since registration will take some time. You consult your finding aids and ask an archivist to help fill out some pull slips, and you have a stack of slips ready at 11:15. But since the next pull time is not until 1:30pm, you will not actually see any records until 2:30. If you are unlucky and end up getting the wrong records, by this point there are no more pull times and you will have to try again tomorrow. Kazaam — you just spent six hours at the archive and saw nothing of interest. You feel the darkness drawing nearer, and you weep.
The only useful strategy is to stagger your pulls so that you are submitting your next request before you have finished your current task. (You will probably have to do this anyway, since you will not be allowed to request material from more than one shelf location at a time.) There are limits to how much you can have waiting for you in the back room, but to be productive you will need to master the art of staggered requests. This is especially important when you are just getting started and have yet to find a rich set of material that might occupy you for several days. Keep in mind that you can leave boxes on hold overnight; this is also the only way to do work on Saturday, when there are no pull times at all.
Besides these basic survival tips, I can only offer moral support and a somewhat breathless list of other issues to watch out for. Getting to and from the archives without a car is tedious at best — you will need to transfer from the Metro to bus R3 or C8, and you may have to wait a while. There are no restaurants anywhere nearby, and the best thing I can say about the cafeteria is that I have had worse. You will have to register your computer and digital camera before entering, and you will have to recite the serial numbers when leaving. You may need to remove your laptop battery so that they can inspect the inside. You will have to get your digital camera “approved” before taking any photos, and you will need to fill out an additional form before taking photos of any declassified documents. Photocopies can only be made on legal-size paper; they are expensive and you can only use a NARA copycard to pay for them. There are rules regulating what you must and must not bring with you to the copier, and there are staff standing by to enforce these rules. There is no wireless internet, and cell-phone reception can be spotty. If you put your feet up or lift a document off the table to read it, you may be reprimanded. The reading room is severely over-air-conditioned, so bring a sweater. But watch out — sweaters with zippers are specifically prohibited.
That said, if you can manage to navigate your way around these challenges, the National Archives do offer a wealth of material. It is quite remarkable to have so many important documents under one roof, and many of the archivists do truly want to help you — some of them seem to find NARA’s rules just as baffling as I do. NARA’s records have been the backbone for many of my research projects, and I am sure I will continue to return to College Park, hat in hand, for the rest of my career.
Program in the History of Science and Medicine
Image: National Archives at College Park (a.k.a. “Archives II”), located in College Park, Maryland, United States of America. It opened in 1994 to mainly preserve photographs and graphic images. It is adjacent to the University of Maryland College Park campus. Wikimedia Commons.
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