Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Monday, October 12, 2009

Digitization at the National Archives (NARA)

The National Archives (NARA) in Washington, D.C. as well as its many branch repositories, contains only about 1% to 3% of the documents and materials "created in the course of business conducted by the United States Federal government." (Fortunately, I might add). See About the National Archives. Only those documents of historical or legal importance (as judged by the government itself, of course) are kept in the vast storage areas. There is no practical way to describe the variety and complexity of the types of records maintained by the NARA. The records kept by the government are so vast that they are beyond the comprehension of any one individual and their value to genealogists and historians is priceless. The archival holdings number more than 10 billion pages of unique documents, many of them handwritten, and include formats such as maps, charts, aerial and still photographs, artifacts, and motion picture, sound, and video recordings.

To quote from the NARA Website:
With NARA’s strategic plan, Preserving the Past to Protect the Future: The Strategic Plan of the National Archives and Records Administration, 2006-2016, NARA recognizes the need to develop a long-term coherent strategy for digitizing and making available its holdings. The strategic plan says that NARA will work to digitize selected records, including those most requested by researchers, and will put searchable descriptions of all our holdings online. It also says that NARA will make digital copies of selected non-electronic records available online, and will set priorities for putting these holdings online.
If you have had the opportunity to visit the National Archives in Washington, D.C. you will recognize that digitization would be a substantial improvement over the present on-site method of research. Not only would digitization preserve the documents from further deterioration, but it would make the documents available without the extensive restrictions imposed on visitors to the National Archive building.

Having said this, the NARA has very few actual records online. As of October, 2009, the following list of records were available from the NARA Websites directly:
However, the National Archives has a subscription to Footnote, Ancestry and Heritage Quest, which have digitized many of NARA's holdings with genealogical interest, and made them available online. There is unlimited access to these services, free-of-charge, from any NARA facility nationwide. See Genealogists/Family Historians. Of course, you can also access these Websites free from other libraries including regional libraries of Family History Library or you could just subscribe and have your own access from your own computer. Before you visit a Family History Center for the first time, you may wish to call ahead and determine if the particular center you want to visit has access to the subscription services.

In my experience, as an example, I was able to find the Federal Court records of one of my great-grandfathers through the digitized images on Footnote from the Denver Branch of the National Archives. I have also found that the records on the Indian Reservations are very detailed and extensive, although not yet adequately represented online.

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