Friday, November 04, 2005

National Archives Research Center in Chicago Needs Visitors

Yesterday a handful of reference librarians from the western suburbs of Chicago took an eye-opening tour of the National Archives and Records Administration’s Great Lakes Region Center in Chicago. The staff of the center, including Martin Tuohy, Peter Bunce, a couple of public service staff, and three of the archivists, rolled out the red carpet for us. They showed us through the massive facility, which includes a 900,000 square foot storeroom for federal records. The view down the aisles was amazing. After the tour we sat down with the archivists for a conversation.

Much has changed at the Chicago facility since we had last visited the facility. The N.A.R.A. has a new public research center, with a new microfilm reading room and a new room for public viewing of records. Workers were still painting door trim as we toured. There also seemed to be a new emphasis on public service, as the staff has produced many finding aids and the center is starting an experiment with Saturday hours. The center will be open to the public on the first Saturday of each month. Call ahead before sending anyone to the facility. Needing an appointment has not changed; the staff want to verify that the archives has the needed records and to suggest preparations before visitors come.

We discussed at length the differences between libraries and archives. Martin said that while libraries catalog and organize their holdings by subject, archives organize their items according to source and date. All the records from a government agency will be together regionally and chronologically. When a researcher goes to a catalog of the holdings of an archive, a keyword search will not work well. The searcher needs to understand the hierarchy of the records system and work from the general to the specific to find records. In the archive the records are kept by Record Group Numbers; the archivists know them by heart, just like librarians know our call numbers.

Martin listed the most common uses of the records at the archives:

Family history
Maritime history
Community and family history of native Americans
Legal research for litigation
Scholarly study of American history

The archives has much for the family history researcher, including census records, land records, selective service and military records, ship passenger lists, immigration and naturalization papers, and records from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Bankruptcy recordsare a great source, too, as they tell much about ancestors possessions.

He urged all libraries to get the third edition of the Guide to Genealogical Research in the National Archives of the United States. He said most of our libraries had the first or second editions, which are quite dated now. The N.A.R.A. also has a number of other useful publications for sale.

Martin showed us a display of books whose authors did their research at the National Archives in Chicago. All of them used federal court records, a major part of the archives collection. Peter said that he hoped to sometimes have an authors group meet regularly at the archives.

After being shown through the archive permanent collection, in which records are constantly being moved into acid-free boxes, the archivists showed us a display of historical items spread across a large table. Among the papers, books, rubber dentures, photographs, and scary objects, was a legal brief written in the hand of Abraham Lincoln, which we all got to hold (inside a plastic sleeve, of course). The rubber dentures were items from a patent case involving a dentist named Goodyear. One big volume had the hand-written transcript of Aaron Burr’s trial (an Ohio case). The photographs were from an early twentieth century obscenity case. The scary objects were the remains of a Molotov cocktail and hand weapons submitted in the Chicago Seven trial. Also on the table were petitions for naturalization for Bob Hope and Enrico Fermi. These items suggest the many items of interest in the collection.

We finished the tour with a very interesting conversation. Peter, Martin, and the archivists told us how public use of the National Archives across the country has fallen drastically in the past ten years. Most of the microfilm readers sit empty much of the time now. The staff is seeking ways to draw the public back to the center and sought our ideas. Two groups they particularly want to recapture are family history researchers and students. Peter said that the archives staff would much like to work with high schoolhistory teachers to draw students for their history projects. He mentioned the hope that he would get an education liaison for his staff to work with high schools and colleges. We agreed that this would be a good idea.

Librarians can help. Let your genealogists know that there are readily available appointments now at the archives on almost any week day. Put up posters. Get the most recent Guide to Genealogical Research in the National Archives of the United States into your collections. Tell your high school teachers that the Archives is eager to with them. Call Peter Bunce, 773-948-9009, and plan a tour. It is an amazing place

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