Researching the Family Tree

October is American Archives Month! Today’s post comes from Elle Benak in the National Archives History Office.


Illustrated family record (Fraktur) found in Revolutionary War Pension and Bounty-Land-Warrant Application File W4927, for Ezekiel Root, Connecticut, ca. 1800. (National Archives Identifier 300228)

The National Archives has many records that can assist researchers in their search to discover their family history. In fact, from the 1970s onward, genealogical records have been the largest resource that draws people to the archives.

Before 1970,  many historians did not view genealogists as serious researchers. The prevailing view was that only the wealthy traced their family histories to document their pedigrees.

At that time, historical research focused mostly on topics like military, political, or economic history.

But the late 1960s and early 1970s marked a shift in historical research. Topics pertaining to social history, like women’s and African American history, started to gain popularity. Continue reading

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Archiving the Digital Age

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 comes from Elle Benak of the National Archives History Office.


Memorandum on Managing Government Records, November 28, 2011. (Office of the Federal Register, National Archives)

On November 28, 2011, President Obama signed a memorandum issuing an executive branch–wide order that all government agencies must reorganize and improve their records management by transitioning to systems that could properly manage electronic records.

The goal of this memorandum was to create a records management system that would “improve performance and promote openness and accountability by better documenting agency actions and decisions.” Improving records management was also seen as a way to minimize expenses.

In the memorandum, Obama stressed that well-managed records allow agencies to analyze programs, operate efficiently, save money, and share knowledge with other agencies as well as the general public.

In short, they are the backbone of an open government.

President Obama recognized the need to transition from paper recordkeeping to a digital system. In his memorandum, he called for a framework that can organize the electronic communications and systems that have “radically increased the volume and diversity of information that agencies must manage.” Continue reading

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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.


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.) Continue reading

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The Challenges of Electronic Records

October is American Archives Month and today is Electronic Records Day! 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 comes from Sam McClure, Electronic Records Program Officer in the Office of the Archivist. 


Printed email message found in George W. Bush Administration textual materials. (Excerpt from National Archives Identifier 24620194)

With more than 12 billion pages of textual materials, 600,000 reels of motion picture film, 18 million maps and charts, 400,000 sound and video records, 9 million aerial photographs, 17.6 million still pictures and posters, 550,000 artifacts, and 20 billion records in our electronic holdings, the scale of the National Archives’ archival holdings is difficult to grasp.

Any category of records in our holdings can be daunting to consider, whether because of the sheer volume of the material, the legal requirements for gaining access, or because of the challenges in finding specific records related to your research interest.

However, electronic records combine these challenges in a unique way.

Many discussions of electronic records focus on email. But email is by no means the only type of electronic record that NARA takes in—we ingest digital images, databases of many kinds, basic office files in directory structures, and countless other formats. Continue reading

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While Chicago Burned

Today’s post was originally published in Prologue: Quarterly of the National Archives in the Winter 2011 issue (Vol. 43, no. 4).

While Chicago Burned

Records of an Obscure Court Case
Yield New Details on the 1871 Fire

By Ann Patricia Duffy

When the fire brigade’s general alarm bells sounded on the night of October 8, 1871, most Chicagoans paid no special notice. The summer had been the hottest and driest of many seasons, and October had already seen several fires in the city.

That Sunday, however, a ferocious wind frustrated the exhausted firefighters’ efforts and propelled the flames across the city. By the time the fire died out on Tuesday morning, roughly 300 people were dead, 100,000 were homeless, and Chicago’s central business district was destroyed.

Those who fled before the flames never forgot the fear and panic of those days. Nearly 70 years later, one Chicagoan described the night of October 8 for the Federal Writers’ Project:

I jumped out of bed and pulled on my pants. Everybody in the house was trying to save as much as possible. I tied my clothes in a sheet. With my clothes under my arm and my pack on my back, I left the house with the rest of the family. Everybody was running north. People were carrying all kinds of crazy things. A woman was carrying a pot of soup, which was spilling all over her dress. People were carrying cats, dogs and goats. In the great excitement people saved worthless things and left behind good things. I saw a woman carrying a big frame in which was framed her wedding veil and wreath. She said it would have been bad luck to leave it behind.

Continue reading

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A Pioneer in Electronic Records

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.


Census Bureau Punch Card Operators, March, 1940. (National Archives Identifier 6200858)

The National Archives has long been tackling the issue of electronic records.

In the early 1960s, while looking at some Census Bureau magnetic tapes, Meyer Fishbein, then a member of the Office of Records Appraisal at the National Archives and Records Service (NARS), asked what they did with them.

The Bureau promptly replied they erased the tapes and reused them (thus saving $12.50 per tape—a hefty sum in those days). They didn’t see it as an issue because they hadn’t been saving their punch cards and this, in their minds, was the same thing.

Continue reading

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The National Archives Celebrates American Archives Month

October is American Archives Month to raise awareness about the value of
archives and archivists!

The National Archives is celebrating American Archives Month with a variety of activities.

October 5 on Twitter is #AskAnArchivist Day when staff from across the nation, including our Presidential Libraries, answer questions and talk about what it’s like to be an archivist at the National Archives.

You can view highlights on storify as well as see Alex Champion answer questions via video!

Follow @usnatarchives for the schedule.


Our Pieces of History blog is hosting a special series on electronic records. Throughout the month we’ll be sharing stories about the history, challenges, and future of electronic records, and much more.

You can also read past posts to see how the National Archives has celebrated American Archives Month in past years.

The National Archives is also hosting a live, two-day, virtual Genealogy Fair via webcast on YouTube. Our free program offers advice on family history research in federal records.poster-l

Sessions include genealogical research guidance on how to use traditional and online resources. Session videos and handouts will be available during and after the event. For the complete schedule and participation instructions, visit the Virtual Genealogy Fair web page.

Finally, the National Archives Assembly, a professional organization of current and former employees of the National Archives, is joining with its partners to present a free Archives Fair at the National Museum of American History on Wednesday, October 5, from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m.


Archivists and experts from a wide array of institutions across the region will be on hand to share their collections, answer questions, and discuss the challenges and opportunities they face every day. You can see the program on the Smithsonian’s UStream.

We’ll be celebrating American Archives Month throughout October. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram to find out more and share your favorite archives story with us. 



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The Bill of Rights Goes to the States

On June 8, 1789, less than one year after the U.S. Constitution was ratified, Representative James Madison of Virginia proposed several amendments to the document.


James Madison, undated. (National Archives Identifier 532835)

The amendments were to be interwoven into the text and were, for the most part, selectively taken from the amendments proposed by the states.

They also mostly related to protecting civil liberties rather than changing the structure of the government.

In August, the House debated, reworded, and changed the amendments.

A successful resolution by Roger Sherman of Connecticut made them a separate document, moving them to the end of the Constitution rather than inserted directly into the text.

On August 24 the House passed 17 articles of amendment, and then the Senate took up the matter, making several more changes of their own. Continue reading

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America’s First Ladies: In Service to Our Nation

Today’s post comes from Elle Benak and Sanjana Barr from the National Archives History Office.


Susan Swain, Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero, Cokie Roberts, Katherine A.S. Sibley, and William Seale, September 16, 2016. (Photo by Jeff Reed, National Archives)

On Friday September 16, 2016, the National Archives hosted the “Legacies of America’s First Ladies” conference in the William G. McGowan theater in Washington, DC.

This was part of an ongoing series first launched in 2011 by American University, who partnered with the National Archives to tell the important story of our nation’s First Ladies.

The conference was led by American University’s professor Anita B. McBride, who had served as Chief of Staff to Laura Bush.

This year’s conference consisted of two panels—the first was a panel moderated by Cokie Roberts with White House Historian William Seale, Professor Katherine A.S. Sibley, and co-CEO of C-SPAN Susan Swain.
Continue reading

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Papers of Count Galeazzo Ciano

Today’s post comes from Sonia Kahn in the National Archives History Office. It is the seventh and final of our series on the history of some of the seized foreign records housed at the National Archives.

Ciano 1

Photograph of Ciano and Ribbentrop at Schloss Belvedere, Vienna, November 2, 1938. (National Archives Collection of Foreign Records Seized)

One of the most complex and fascinating histories about foreign records at the National Archvies has been saved for last: the story behind the Papers of Count Galeazzo Ciano, sometimes intriguingly referred to as the Ciano Rose Garden Papers.

Ciano had both personal and formal ties to fascist leader Benito Mussolini. He was married to Mussolini’s eldest legitimate daughter, Edda, in 1930, and he served as the Italian Foreign Minister from 1936 to 1943.

During his term as Foreign Minister, Ciano kept a diary, and along with it a set of accompanying papers to which he frequently referred in the journal entries.

Continue reading

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