Making Archives Customer-Friendly

If you want to get historians upset, just mention NARA. NARA is short for the National Archives and Records Administration, and its main job is running the National Archives. The Archives is a treasure trove of papers, films, photographs, and digital materials documenting the work of the U.S. government. It is also a difficult place to do research. Although NARA has made strides putting certain types of records online, particularly military records–a very large proportion of Archives users want information related to their own or a relative’s military service–the vast bulk of NARA’s holdings is stored in acid-free boxes on the shelves of the main Archives at College Park, Maryland, or at other facilities around the country. Locating a needle in the vast haystack that is College Park requires access to hundreds of looseleaf binders, known as finding aids, which for some reason NARA has never been willing to post online.

Using the Archives as a researcher, it is fair to say, is not a customer-friendly experience. Say a researcher thinks the records of the U.S. Maritime Administration might be helpful. NARA’s website reveals only that College Park houses 357.2 Headquarters Records of the Maritime Administration 1947-69. The researcher must now buy a plane ticket, reserve a hotel room, and come to College Park. There, the finding aids in the textual records room might include a binder or two for the Maritime Administration, with listings such as “Office files of Joe Smith, deputy assistant administrator for shipbuilding, 1951-53.” By the time the researcher has received a few boxes of Joe Smith’s records, he or she has lost several hours of precious research time in College Park. The boxes may not even have records that relate to the topic, meaning that the researcher will have to order more boxes and wait again. And it’s highly possible that someone has determined that the material is security-sensitive, meaning that the researcher must file a Freedom of Information Act request and wait for months to see whether the records will be opened. (The obsession with “security” can go to ridiculous extremes; when I was researching my book The Great A&P, I found that boxes of records relating to a 1940s court case were under seal in College Park, even though everything in the boxes had originally been introduced in open court–and even though many of the same records were available, unsealed, at the National Archives branch in Chicago.)

I recently encountered a very different approach to customer service at the Bundesarchiv, the German Federal Archives in Koblenz. A few weeks ahead, I’d sent an email outlining the research I was doing and the types of records I wanted to see. An archivist wrote me back, attaching a list of records he thought might be relevant. I selected a few, which were waiting for me when I arrived. Fifteen minutes after I walked in the door, I was taking notes.

Instead of finding aids in looseleaf notebooks, the Bundesarchiv has a computerized catalog for use on-site. On the left side of the screen is a schematic of the archive’s holdings that opens into greater and greater detail, so the researcher can specify a search across the entire government’s records or those of a particular subagency. The right side is a search engine that enables the researcher to look by author or keyword, within a desired time period, within whatever records group has been specified on the left. A few seconds later, the system, known as Invenio, spits out a list of relevant records. The researcher can then immediately order the records through Invenio. There are none of the paper call slips required by NARA, which occasionally have errors that lead to the wrong materials being delivered.

I don’t know whether a system such as Invenio is practical at the National Archives. I do know that the system makes it easy to do historical research. Perhaps NARA has something to learn.

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