Archival research requires the researcher to develop critical thinking skills–strategies for determining which records may be relevant, based on subject matter, geographical coverage, and time frame. And, of course, how did the person or subject of interest interact with the record-keeper.
The National Archives Catalog is NARA’s version of a modern finding aid, providing a means to search for record groups, record series, files, and even items.
It’s the archival version of an online library catalog, which lists all the books in a particular library. But NARA is not a library, and NARA is not full of books. NARA has records, and records are much different than books. And there’s a lot of stuff: 10 billion pages of textual records; 12 million maps, charts, and architectural and engineering drawings; 25 million still photographs and graphics; 24 million aerial photographs; 300,000 reels of motion picture film; 400,000 video and sound recordings; and 133 terabytes of electronic data. These are the permanently valuable records of the United States Federal Government.
The good thing about the the online National Archives Catalog is that it can, over time, be updated to include
- (1) more detailed information;
- (2) descriptions of files;
- (3) descriptions of items;
- (4) images of items, whole files, and even whole rolls of microfilm.
Every working day, archivists are adding more and more information to the Catalog. It is growing by leaps and bounds. Just understand that it will not, repeat not, be an “every name in every record” database in our lifetime.
The bad thing about the Catalog is that it doesn’t behave like an old fashioned finding aid, such as a Preliminary Inventory, which described records of a particular record group (Federal agency) in a logical hierarchical way. As a printed product, a Preliminary Inventory was something you could sit down and study at your leisure. The relationships between record series were easier to understand. The bad thing about printed products is that they can’t be updated very often, and the larger they are, the more expensive they are to produce.
Despite their limitations, the old NARA finding aids that were published decades ago can still be useful. The researcher just needs to remember that NARA has more record series for most record groups than were listed in the old finding aids, and that more up-to-date information is in the National Archives Catalog.
The Allen County Public Library has placed online searchable PDFs of over 50 NARA Preliminary Inventories as well as five Special Lists. They’ve also placed online descriptive pamphlets (DPs) for some NARA microfilm publications, most of which are also available on the NARA website for free through the “Order Online” system (click on microfilm tab). Updated 19 November 2015.