Four Secrets toSearching the National Archives
By Phil Stewart
Do you remember the last scene in the 1981 movie Raiders of the LostArk, when the wooden crate containing the Ark of the Covenant was movedinto that huge limitless warehouse for storage?
After recently completing a short very informal survey, that scene fromthe movie is what a majority folks think of when they are asked todescribe the U.S. National Archives. Scary, isn't it. Properly called the National Archives and Records Administration(NARA), located in Washington, D.C., the National Archives is thenation's record keeper. The latest estimates, nobody is sure ofthe exact total, show that the NARA has in its custody approximately:
billions (that's the official estimate) of machine-readable data sets.
9 billion pages of textualrecords.
20 million still photographs.
7.2 million maps, charts, andarchitectural drawings.
365,000 reels of motion picturefilm.
All of these materials arepreserved because they are important to the workings of the Government,have long-term research worth, or provide information of value to you -the U.S. citizen.
In an effort to allow enhanced access to many of these holdings, NARAdeveloped the online Archival Research Catalog (ARC). This is thelatest Web-based research tool that provides a portal to the contentand physical descriptions of all its archival holdings. Thestated goal is to have 95 percent of NARA's records input into ARC by2016. At this time, about two-thirds of the holdings have beenloaded into this digital super-catalog, but not all of these entrieshave comprehensive descriptions.
Obviously then, ARC is far from complete. It's dynamic, withcontent updates all the time. A subject that you researchone week may have no hits and then have hundreds the next time you do asearch. In addition, ARC is not as easy to use as your favoriteWeb browser, and it has been known to be rather obstinate. Itdoes not have as much "fuzzy logic" as I would think it should have,but maybe that will be part of the next software upgrade. The ARCmain webpage, www.archives.gov/research/arc,has much more detailed information for your review.
ARC Search Tips
Let's say you wanted to do some research on Charles Lindbergh, thefirst aviator to fly across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927. If youload that term in the ARC search box on the webpage noted above, you'llend of with a list of 126 items. Before you start the laborious processof scanning each one of the listings, I would suggest you try theselittle known search tips.
1.After you get your first list of results, find and select the "RefineSearch" button near the top of the page. This will bring up the"Archival Descriptions Advanced Search" page. Set the "LimitResults" button to 2,000 to ensure that you get the greatest number ofhits during your refined search.
2. Now select the "HighlightSearch Terms" box. This will highlighted in yellow the matchingwords in your search criteria.
3. Scroll down the page until youfind a section called "Type of Archival Materials." You haveeight choices to pick from which will reduce the scope of thesubsequent search; and yes, you can check more than one. In thisexample, let's say you're interested in historical film footage ofLindy for that video production you're editing, so you'd deselect allthe types listed except for "Moving Images." This will narrow your nextset of search results to motion picture and video items.
4. Then click on the "Searchbutton" and you should find a list of 77 film titles for your review.
So, whatever you're looking for in the NARA, try using ARC to find it.If you use the four secrets mentioned above you'll have a better thanaverage chance of finding what you are looking for, if it exists in theracks and stacks of the National Archives.
Phil Stewart is aretired Air Force officer, specializing in the videoproduction. He then opened a video production company, worked asa television director, and currently manages a multimediafacility. Mr. Stewart volunteers as a motion picture filmresearcher for the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. He'sauthored four books and three articles on the motionpicture films held within the National Archives. Visit www.pwstewart.com for more information. Permissiongranted for use on DrLaura.com.