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 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.