Tuesday, May 18, 2010

An Excellent Adventure at NARA

The Roving Historian has finally gotten to rove again. The first week of May, I was out on my research trip to down to the D.C. area. I visited the Army Heritage and Education Center (AHEC) in Carlisle, PA, and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in the D.C. suburb of College Park, MD. At both archives, I was looking for photographs and primary source documents on the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion during WWII. This trip was the last major step in my research for a book project that I’ve been working on for the last several months. I’ll tell you about my visit to the AHEC and the afternoon I spent traipsing around Gettysburg Battlefield in other posts. In today’s post I would like to try to alleviate some of the apprehension that novice researchers might feel about going to visit NARA. What better way than to tell you about my visit?

The National Archives facility at College Park is also referred to as “Archives II.” Archives I is the main NARA building on the Mall in Washington, D.C. Archives II is a huge facility that was specially designed to house archival records and support research. There are five floors that contain separate research rooms for textual records, still pictures, motion pictures and sound, cartographic and architectural records, and electronic media. Once you go through security, you then go to the basement where lockers are available to store your belongings. The only items that you can carry into a research room are laptops, flatbed scanners, and cameras. Pencils and notepaper are provided.

The first day that I visited College Park my friend Paul (http://www.historydelivered.com/) went with me and helped in the still pictures branch. It was the first visit for both of us. I have to admit that it is nice to have a friend along on the first visit until you feel comfortable with the procedures. I wouldn’t blame you for being uneasy…simply because you don’t know what to expect. However, there is really no reason for hesitation. The folks that work at NARA, especially in the research rooms are super friendly and helpful.

My first day was spent in the Still Pictures research room. Teresa and Holly, the NARA staff members on duty that day were incredible to work with. Teresa showed us how to search the card catalog by keyword. Yes, the estimated 8 million images are indexed by an old-fashioned card catalog. Then she helped us fill out the request form to have the boxes “pulled.” I was lucky to have Paul with me that day as a research partner. He cut my work time in half and at the end of the day we had found and scanned more than three dozen photographs. The biggest distraction you have to fight is the desire to go browsing through the boxes of photographs you’ve had pulled. You have to make a quick decision on whether you need the image or not. Time flies, and what is fun early in the morning becomes work by early afternoon.

Two days later, I was in NARA again. This time flying solo, I visited the textual records room. Here, like in Still Pictures, the catalog was not computerized. A research staff member is there to help, but once you know the procedure, finding what you need is a piece of cake. An index of records of military units from WWII and Korea are kept in three ring binders on the shelf. You can literally help yourself, and write down the boxes you need on a request form. Again, you have to wait for your records to be pulled, which for textual records takes a little longer. But I only had to wait about twenty minutes. You check out your records cart, push it over to a table, and go to work. If you have so much information that you can’t finish in one session, check it back in. Your records are held for you for up to three days, ready for you to work on when you return. Therefore, you don’t have to worry about “pulling” them each day that you are in the archive. For text records, I used my “research camera” and made images of more than 200 pages of primary source documents…mostly operations orders and after action reports created by the 509th PIB.

I would not say that I am an overly experienced researcher. However, I have worked with primary source documents in several local historical societies, two university libraries, and the AHEC on several occasions. In my opinion, my short time at College Park was the best research experience I have ever had. The staff was patient, friendly, and helpful. The work environment was relaxing. Most importantly, I found what I was looking for. Lack of computerized catalogs was not a problem, other than the fact that you can’t find out exactly what is held at NARA until you go there.

Admittedly, most research for a project like mine can, and is, done through secondary sources. Even if you live in a rural or remote area like I do, you can take advantage of interlibrary loan and find most of the information you need. However, for a historian and writer of any experience level, nothing can replace reviewing the primary documents pertaining to your subject. I encourage anyone interested to make the trip to the repository that houses the information you are looking for. Moreover, if it happens to be in the National Archives, you will enjoy the experience.

Picture descriptions, from the top:
Entry gate to the National Archives at College Park, Maryland.
The Still Pictures research room at Archives II. Image from Microsoft Case Study.
The Textual Records research room at Archives II. Image from Microsoft Case Study.
LTC William P. Yarborough, Commanding Officer of the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion (left) and LTC Roy A. Murray, Commanding Officer of the 4th Ranger Battalion, aboard the Winchester Castle, study model of the beach where troops aboard the ship will make their assault on Anzio, Jan 1944. NARA image SC 186957.
Infantrymen of the 509th Parachute Infantry moving out with a tank from the 7th Armored Division near St Vith, Belgium, January 24, 1945. NARA image SC 279944.

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