Helping the Public Use Electronic Records at the National Archives

October is American Archives Month! We’re celebrating the work of archivists and the importance of archives with a series of blog posts about the electronic records. Today’s post is an interview by External Affairs Liaison Meg Phillips with Lynn Goodsell and Ted Hull of the Electronic Records Division.

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Ted Hull and Lynn Goodsell at work. (Photo courtesy of Lynn Goodsell)

Today I’m visiting with the Director of the National Archives Electronic Records Division, Theodore (Ted) Hull, and the Electronic Records Division Reference Branch Chief, Lynn Goodsell.

My goal is to learn about how the public can get access to electronic records at the National Archives and to find out a little bit about the types of electronic records we receive from federal agencies. (The National Archives also receives electronic records in the Presidential Libraries and the Center for Legislative Archives.)

Meg: How do you provide access to federal electronic records?

Lynn and Ted: Researchers can access our records three ways. They can order files, download some full files online from the National Archives Catalog, or search and retrieve selected individual records in a structured format via Access to Archival Databases (AAD).  Our records are described in the National Archives Catalog. If researchers find descriptions of records they wish to access, they can contact us at cer@nara.gov or visit the Electronic Records Division web pages.

Meg: How have reference services changed since you began working with the unit?

Lynn and Ted: Reference services have changed with the evolution of the types of electronic records and the technology for accessing the records.

When the program began in 1968, researchers requested copies of archival databases in order to do statistical analysis using their own software programs. The focus was on providing access to historical government data. This aspect of our reference services has not changed, except now researchers can download some files from the National Archives Catalog.

In the early 1980s, we accessioned the first transfer of Vietnam War casualty records in an electronic database format. Not only was there interest in these records as a whole for statistical purposes, but researchers also began requesting individual records within the database. To meet this demand, we first provided researchers with printouts and extracts from the database. Now with the Access to Archival Databases (AAD) resource, researchers can search these and other databases to retrieve individual records or create extracts.

We are currently accessioning a growing number of electronic records in other formats, such as PDFs of scanned documents, presentation documents, and word-processing documents. When possible, we make these records available through the National Archives Catalog.

For example, we have begun to make National Register of Historic Places and National Historic Landmarks Program Records available through the Catalog. These records document the building, architectural, and cultural aspects of places officially designated as worthy of historic preservation. One such record is the Abraham Lincoln home in Springfield, Illinois.

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Abraham Lincoln’s home, from National Historic Sites and Buildings application, 1959. (National Archives Identifier 28891638)

Meg: What are the most popular/used records?

Lynn and Ted: Records that contain information on individuals are always popular. World War II Army Enlistment Records are one of the most popular. These are records on approximately nine million men and women who enlisted or reenlisted in the U.S. Army, including the Reserve Corp and Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, between 1938 and 1946.

The Army captured the enlistment information on computer punch cards, which the National Archives, with support from the Census Bureau, converted to a current digital format. The National Personnel Records Center relies on these records as part of their efforts to reconstruct the records lost in the 1973 fire. The records are available on AAD, where they are queried up to 3,000 a day.

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Example of World War II Army Enlistment punch card. Information from punch cards was converted to a database searchable through AAD. (Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, National Archives)

In the past few years, demand for mortgage data has skyrocketed. No doubt this trend is tied to the recent housing crisis. Almost weekly we receive inquiries about the data from the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act. We now make these records available for download through the National Archives Catalog.

Meg: Are there any really interesting but underused records?

Lynn and Ted: Of our many interesting records, the World Wide Public Opinion Polls Files stand out as underused. These files contain public opinion poll response data relating to international relations as conducted by the United States Information Agency (USIA) in countries across the world between 1952 through 1999.

The questions asked in the polls range from approval ratings on various world leaders to knowledge of American pop icons and from opinions on international events to sources for news.

These files are a treasure trove of data on how different populations perceived world events in the second half of the 20th century. USIA created reports based on the data, and these reports are among the textual records held at the National Archives at College Park.

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Example questionnaire from the World Wide Public Opinion Polls Files. (Records of U.S. Information Agency, National Archives)

Meg: That’s really interesting! 

Thank you both for taking the time to talk about some of your interesting records and what researchers can do to get access to them.

To learn more about the National Archives electronic records, read Ted’s 2006 Prologue Magazine article, The World War II Army Enlistment Records File and Access to Archival Databases.

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