Sunday, November 21, 2010

What I learned at the NARA users group meeting Friday

Friday, 19 Nov 2010 found several of us at the National Archives 2 (A-2) facility in College Park, Maryland for a meeting that for years had been styled as the NARA "users group" meeting. Now the NARA folks are chairing the "Researchers Forum" by creating the agenda and hosting the meeting. Mr. Myrt had attended a number of these users group meetings in the past, but this was my first time out to such an event. Boy, did I learn a lot!

As I've read back through this posting before publishing, I've made every attempt to be forthright in my report of the meeting, and taking care to include Ol' Myrt's personal comments in [square brackets].

Susan Cummings, Director, Access Programs
welcomed us and introduced each of the NARA employees participating in the program. She also handled beginning research questions from some  participants. Later in the meeting, Susan pointed the two newbie researchers to the resources online at the NARA website stating under Obama's "open government" policy, more is going up on the web to explain how NARA works.

2. A2 Saturday Pull Pilot
Vernon Smith, Chief, Research Support Branch reported on the November 2010 "Saturday Pull Pilot" being conducted at Archives 2, as had been done for a month at Archives 1 last summer. NARA normally "pulls" files for research review only Monday through Friday, though it is possible to view them during normal NARA hours that include Saturday. Vernon explained that the difference between the two pilot programs is that at A-2 there are two specialists in the finding aids room, and they were not during the A-1 Saturday pull pilot.

Harold McClendon, a member of the Mount Vernon Genealogical Society and genealogy community activist asked how the Saturday pull affects the "3-day hold issue". (Files pulled can be held for three days, but include Saturday when files are not normally pulled.) Vernon replied that Saturdays still count. He also gave the number 301.837.2005 for making hold extensions from the three day standard to five days at the A-2 facility. [When you call, ask for circulation to request the two additional days.]

Harold also inquired about program evaluation parameters for the pilot. [A little confusion ensued.] Susan explained that basically NARA learned Saturday pulls are expensive, i.e. paying for employee overtime with few files being pulled. Harold and others explained that getting the message out, and building into the researchers' experience a pattern for Saturday pulls was not adequately provided for in the existing Saturday pull model.

[I found it odd that such an important pilot would be run in November, when certainly few, if any, researchers are planning to use the facility several Saturdays in the month due to multiple holiday weekends. Thanksgiving travel for many, may take precedence over NARA research, but I digress.]

3. WI-Fi Update
Susan Cummings announced that beginning 29 Nov 2010, WiFi access will be available to patrons in public areas at both A-1 and A-2.

4. A-1  Renovation / Budget Update
Susan Cummings stated there is no budget, and there is no renovation in progress.

5. Update on NARA's proposal to use colored paper / green bags.
Susan Cummings explained that 20th century records [in NARA files] are difficult to distinguish from photocopies and a decision has been made to use legal-sized blue paper in the photocopy machines as soon as the paper order arrives. Certified copies [made by NARA] will be white. There was discussion about the use of a flash drive to capture the photocopies and having one of two options available:
  • copied to flash drive, NARA prints outside the textual reading room
  • copied to patron flash drive or one purchased from NARA that the researcher takes home
In either case, the current photocopier contracts expire in May 2011, and the newer copier/scanner  contracts with an eye to the digital technology haven't been selected.

One attendee, a documents service provider for the legal system explained that asking for a certified copy can take the file or files in question out of circulation for 60 days or so, and that other parties will also be wanting access to the file as required by a judge in a court case. Susan Cummings made a declarative statement "We will get you what you need when you need it."

Concerning the "green bags", currently, its possible to have a batch of photocopies screened by a NARA employee in the textual reading room, placed in a green security bag, zipped and locked. The only person that can unlock the green bag is the guard on the main floor when the researcher signs out of the building. This process will be mandatory, and some five hundred additional green bags have been ordered for immediate implementation of this policy.

6. Security measures for Staff
Susan Cummings referred to the fact [as I've observed on numerous occasions] that every piece of computer equipment, camera and slip of paper a researcher takes in and out of NARA facilities is thoroughly checked by security, even reviewed in airport-like security scanners. NARA employees carrying large handbags, and even backpacks, merely walk past the guards with nothing more than a polite nod. Susan explained that discussions at the highest levels are ongoing between NARA and unions to resolve security issues. Possibilities might include random or 100% checks of employees & their bags.

7. All digital research room
Susan Cummings. (As discussed above)

8. Web site remake /ARC/OPA
Rebecca Warlow, Digitization and Description Team, stated the new NARA website will roll out Dec 2010, with the new record search debuting in Jan 2011. The buzz-words are "online public access". The catalog will be easier to search, and results will be prioritized as to:
  • What resources (scanned images, multi-media files, etc.) are actually online
  • What the catalog merely describes, but the items themselves are still in a non-digital format
  • Useful pages on the website (like an article in Prologue related to the search, or a research guide)
  • Authority files (controlled vocabulary used to catalog incoming items)
Robin Waldman showed NARA's Social Networking page. I found this particularly interesting that NARA has moved forward with blogs, a wiki, Facebook pages for each regional archives, and has even joined Twitter and Flickr. [Such wildly popular web resources will make it easier to get the word out about NARA and what's available to researchers.]

9. Pension file move to St. Louis
Ann Cummings, Director, Textual Archives Services Division explained there remains only three years of space to store pension files in the DC area. She specifically used the word "potential" to describe the move of pension files. Ann explained the "potential" move is only one option, and files would only be sent in blocks once digitized and available on the web.

Angela McGhie, President, APG National Capital Area Chapter, inquired why pensions, one of the most popular record groups, are considered for the move, rather than lesser-used record groups. The answer was that lesser-used groups are being moved, including patent files to Kansas.

10. 1940 Census
Susan Cummings stated all digital images will be posted on the first available day to the NARA website, indexed to enumeration district only.

11. Ancestry Digitization Projects
Susan Cummings explained that there is a 5-year term where commercial partners have 100% use of digital images of NARA records with free access at NARA facilities. At the conclusion of that term the images, will be returned to NARA "as resources are available". [I am assuming NARA resources include bandwidth and server space to handle high volume end-user access]. However, partner sites like can keep their proprietary meta-data associated with the images. [To me, this makes the free census indices at FamilySearch all the more valuable.]

Gordon Erickson inquired about the "scan on demand" option available through the NARA website, where long-distance researchers may elect to obtain scanned images of an ancestor's pension file rather than a paper copy. He asked where those scanned images reside? The response was that the images go out the door to the researchers, and are not saved by NARA.

Ol' Myrt here applauded the War of 1812 Pension File Digitization joint project between NARA and FGS (Federation of Genealogical Societies). In light of the initial funding, and the request by NARA for $20,000 to upgrade the equipment, I was encouraged. My 3-part question concerns the status of the project:
  • How many 1812 pension files and images have been captured to date?
  • Can we have a monthly update on those numbers?
  • Can digitalized files appear on NARA's website as soon as they are processed, not waiting until the entire record group has been digitized? [This would build interest in the project and encourage donations.]
Neither Susan Cummings, Director, Access Programs nor Rebecca Warlow, Digitization and Description Team member were able to answer questions about the 1812 digitization initiative. After the meeting Rebecca said she would look into it, but her initial take was that nothing would be done on the project until significant funding was in place.

[As you can see from my notes, attending these NARA "users group" or NARA "researchers forum" meetings can be highly informative. The move to making these meetings on a quarterly basis rather than monthly seems a step backwards to me. In the interests of full-disclosure, meeting on a more timely basis facilitates better communication.]

Happy family tree climbing!
Myrt     :)
Your friend in genealogy.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Myrt - I'm glad you thought the meeting was useful. I had fun and enjoyed meeting many of you. We will be posting our own minutes from the meeting soon on Narations and they will include an update on the War of 1812 Pension Digitization Project. I look forward to the next meeting in the Spring. Thanks! Susan Cummings