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

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Online Public Access to the U.S. National Archives

In my experience, the U.S. National Archives website was one of the most difficult to use and poorly organized large online databases. Even if you could find the title to a record you were interested in viewing, it was very difficult to figure out how to get access to the record. Usually, the conclusion was that the record was only available for examination, in person, at the National Archives location holding the record. For that reason, when the website was implemented, it was a major event because the site was established to provide access to digitized copies of the National Archives records. But then was purchased by and became It is now far from clear as to how the records in the National Archives are being made available in digitized format.

This summer, the National Archives has completed changing their cataloging system from what was previously called the Archival Research Catalog (ARC) to a new system called the Online Public Access (OPA). Unfortunately, it is far from clear how this new system changes the way records are accessed or what records may or may not be available online. The National Archives site says that the OPA prototype currently contains all of the ARC data, including the archival descriptions or catalog records, authority files, and digital copies.

For example, the startup page for the National Archives has a search field. If I enter my surname into the field and do a search, I get all sorts of documents listed containing the word "tanner" and any portion of the word, such as "tan." So far, I haven't figured out how to get a meaningful response and further, how to figure out which documents are available online and which are not without clicking on each document.

I am going to spend some time working with the site and see if I can figure out any faster way of doing real research with their online records. Stay tuned.


  1. I think that the new search method is very incomplete. I research Hoisington and Horsington genealogy and I have searched on the National Archives site before using the old method. Using that method, I came up with several interesting pieces of information on Hoisingtons, including a letter by Col. Joab Hoisington that was sent to George Washington and several pictures of General Elizabeth Hoisington. None of this shows up now.

  2. Dear Mr. Tanner,

    We appreciate you taking the time to explore the National Archives’ Online Public Access (OPA) catalog. The content you previously found in the Archival Research Catalog is available in OPA. In addition OPA is also searching our web site and the web sites of the Presidential Libraries.

    When you search in OPA, the search results come back in several categories. The first three search results are displayed for each category. You can see all of the search results for a category by clicking “View All” in the right corner of each set of search results.

    Any records we have available online in OPA are found in the first group of search results. Currently we have over 1.8 million images available in OPA. If you click on one of the thumbnail images or titles in the first set of search results, a full sized image will appear along with the complete description.

    The second set of search results are descriptions of our records. The majority of our records are not available online at this time, but the descriptions will tell you what records we have and which of our locations nationwide has the records. The contact information for the office that has the records is included at the bottom of each description.

    The next two categories of search results are pages from our web site and pages from the web sites of the Presidential Libraries.

    We will be posting tips on using our Online Public Access catalog on our NARAtions blog over the next few weeks.

    We would be happy to speak with you about your experiences with Online Public Access and any suggestions you may have for us. You can reach us at

    Rebecca Warlow
    Office of Innovation
    National Archives