Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Army Heritage and Education Center

In my last post, I told you about my research trip during the first week of May. I started with the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. In this post, I would like to tell you about the Army Heritage and Education Center (AHEC) in Carlisle, PA. This was actually my first stop during my research trip for photos and primary documents on the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion.

The AHEC is several things in addition to a repository for primary source documents pertaining to military history. Originally, (and still its primary function) the AHEC was created to support the Army’s War College at Carlisle Barracks. In 2002, they moved to their current campus, off base, so you don’t have to have your vehicle and ID checked to park there. If you visit, plan an extra afternoon to visit the museum and the Army Heritage Trail. The trail is a walking path of about a mile that has interactive exhibits that are recreations from army history. For example, you can go into Redoubt #10 from the battle of Yorktown, get into a WWI trench, or walk through a WWII era tarpaper billet.

The fact that the AHEC is a library as well as an archive makes it a “first stop” for researching military history. Before you visit in person, look at several of the AHEC’s online resources, like their list of finding aids and the online catalog. Finding aids have been created for many unit histories and military history subjects. These documents are available online. With these finding aids and the online catalog, you will know what secondary works are available as well as primary source documents. Looking for secondary sources through interlibrary loan with your local public library will save you days of research time at the AHEC. Knowing the primary source material available will help you determine if you need to visit in person, and if so, estimate how many days you will need in the library.

When you enter the main building of the AHEC, you will have to sign in with security before going in the research library. Lockers are provided to store your coat and any carry cases. You can only bring laptops, cameras, writing paper, and pencils into the research room. A research assistant is available to help you fill out your “pull request” from the library. Don’t try to go it alone, use their expertise. The staff is extremely knowledgeable, very friendly, and eager to help you with your project.

While all libraries and archives have similar procedures, they also differ from place to place. Unlike NARA, at the AHEC you cannot bring in a flatbed scanner. I use a small digital camera to take pictures of documents (reproduction costs would kill you) that are too lengthy to take notes on. I used the same camera at AHEC to reproduce photographs. A photo station is set up in the research room for this purpose. You mount your camera on a photo stand and adjust two studio lights beside the table on tripods. I at first had my doubts, but this system worked beautifully. For textual items, I just set my camera to a “copy” preset and use it handheld. I reproduced 13 photographs and over 200 pages of documents in one long day at the AHEC.

I am a huge fan of digitizing primary documents so we don’t have to travel to an archive to look up this information. However, I know we will never be able to put every document and picture held in repositories online. There is just too much. You have to travel to where it is stored. Also, there is just no beating the thrill of holding the document in your hand, or to read the contents in its entirety for yourself, unedited and not interpreted for you by someone else. Again, I urge anyone who is interested in any subject to visit the appropriate archive and look up the information. I do not consider myself to be a scholar, an academic, or an intellectual. No one asked me what my qualifications or reasons were before allowing me access to any materials at either the AHEC or NARA. It is our history. Go get it.

Picture credits from the top:
  • Screen capture of AHEC website, 6/1/2010.
  • WWII in-service airborne recruiting poster, AHEC.
  • Text document from William B. Breuer Collection, AHEC.

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