Thursday, June 30, 2011

A Newbie's View of the National Archives - Those Places Thursday

There truly aren't words for what a fabulous experience I had researching at the National Archives. I was there a day and a half. The staff was extraordinarily patient, supportive, and just plain kind without being the least bit patronizing (which wouldn't have been much a leap given some of my questions).

"Checking in" after lunch worked since I had the next day as well. If I'd only had one day I would have been first in line when the doors opened in the morning. It did take well over two hours to clear security, get my temporary researcher's ID, fill out requests for the Civil War Pension Files I wanted, drop off all but the allowed essentials in a locker and wait for the files to be delivered. I then had a couple hours to dig into the first file before the end of the day. The beauty of the system was that all the files were there waiting for me the next morning.

One of my favorite experiences came at the end of my visit. I finished reviewing the last Civil War pension file (I was able to thoroughly examine three files in my day and a half) with 30 minutes left before the Archives closed. I was curious about hunting for something more obscure. I settled on War of 1812 Civilian Reparations files - or records of claims made by American civilians for damages by the British - and sweetly asked where I would find them. One of my Meredith in-laws did receive a settlement from the British in 1828 and I would love to get a look at the information in the claim.

There was no rabbit pulled out of a hat, nor did I truly expect to get my hands or eyes on the claim at 4:30 pm (and a Friday, at that). But three archivists thought, talked, quickly searched and suggested ways to find the information. I walked away with several viable search strategies and a telephone number for an archivist who specializes in records of that era. An impressive result.

A few other hints to total novices - 
  • First, know where the serial numbers are on all your electronic devices. My little HP had the number hidden away on the battery which I had never removed. Took us a few minutes. (And to HP - print could be just a little bigger for eyes that have seen a few years, thank you!)
  • The sheet recording all your electronic devices should be kept if you're going to be using the Archives for several days running. Saves those minutes spent squinting at the serial numbers the first day. 
  • It is not necessary to break into giggles the first time you move to the microfilm reader/digital scanner, elated to be grabbing digital rather than paper images, and realize it has hand cranks to move the film. But if you do, no one will shush you.
  • My standard dressing in layers for libraries is less effective here. No sweaters, wraps or hoodies allowed in the reading room unless you are wearing them. Which means a bit of going back and forth to the locker room if your temperature fluctuates. Still it was a chance to stretch my legs and grab a drink of water. 
  • Gathering Civil War Pension File information from Footnote.com before the trip saved a bunch of time when filling out the document request forms. Do as much advance work as possible using the NARA website, or other on-line repositories.
Big changes are apparently afoot at the Archives. In future years most research will be done at other sites. If you have a chance to visit it this year or next, do. It's a thrill.

16 comments:

  1. Curious - do you just look at the pension files and then give them back? Does it still cost $75 just to look at them (I'm thinking not)? If it weren't so darned expensive to get to Washington D.C., I'd be there!

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  2. Debi - It's all free - unless you have copies made. But I had a camera and scanner with me so I was able to digitize the documents I was interested in. I'd been wanting to look at these files for several years, but the cost was a factor. I also appreciated being able to sift through the documents and only record those I was interested in.

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  3. Susan, you are on a roll, finding all kinds of records on your research trip, and thanks for sharing your information and tips with us. I've never looked up a record there, just a lot of censuses before the internet. Enjoy each coming day with a discovery.

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  4. I'm glad to hear they let you use a camera. So many archives don't.

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  5. Sounds wonderful! I'm envious! It is on my list of places to go, and research.

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  6. Yeah, that wrap/coat/sweater thing was inconvenient; I remember that.

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  7. I would love to do some research there someday. We took a trip to D.C. last year, but I had all of the kids with me and I just had to pout as I passed by the building. Thanks for the tips!

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  8. What an awesome experience. One of my dreams is to visit the National Archives some day. My maternal grandfather had some land taken by eminent domain during World War II for a military installation and I've always wanted to try to find the records. I've tried to figure out how to search the National Archives online catalog--but I had difficulty figuring it out.

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  9. how did you scan or photograph the files if you were using a microfilm reader? Is there a copy on a flatbed or something? asking you the crazy questions so i'll know!

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  10. Kristin, there is a computer and scanner attached to the microfilm reader that will take the image from the reader and make a digital file instead of printing a copy. At the Archives I started on a traditional microfilm reader with a printer attached. Once I found the documents I was looking for I switched to one of the 3 or 4 machines they had that could make digital copies. Access to those machines is more restricted because they are in greater demand.

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  11. Kristin, rereading your question - I was reading both microfilm AND paper documents. The pension files were paper and read in the reading room where I could photograph or scan the documents. I did other research using microfilm.

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  12. Great post, Susan! I would love to get there someday, and am going to save your tips and insights to help me when I do. Glad you had such wonderful success!

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  13. How exciting to be researching in the National Archives. Could you just wear everything in--and then take something off quietly and surreptitiously tuck it under your chair? The water break is important, however, as I found when working at the Newberry Library here in Chicago. They ordered microfilms from the 1500s-1800s of the Lutheran church in Gersteim, Alsace! from the Mormons -- of course, but I could look at them just 30 min from my house. BTW thanks for the comment on my translating. Could I take on Hungarian? Wish I could. My grandmother's passport is all in Hungarian!

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  14. Great tips! I'm going to bookmark this for the day when I finally get to NARA.

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  15. Susan-
    I had heard about the coming changes and really want to go this year. I was wondering what the difference in cost was. What information do you need for the Civil War pension files? I have been trying to find someone who wants to go with me so we can split the cost of driving and hotel, but so far no luck. Thank you for your very informative post.

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  16. Margel, To pull a pension file you need the name, co./reg. information, pension application and certificate numbers for all applications (invalid, widows, minor). All the information that is on the Pension Index files on Footnote & Ancestry. You can look the information up at the Archives, but having it hand when I arrived saved time. You can request 3 (or 4? I forget which) files at a time, though can only review one at a time.

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