Guide to Genealogical Research in the National Archives
Edited by Anne Bruner Eales and Robert M. Kvasnicka. 3rd edition.
Washington, D.C: National Archives Trust Fund Board for the National Archives
and Records Administration, 2000. vii, 411 pp. Bibliography. Index. Cloth,
$39.00. ISBN 1-880875-21-7. Paper, $25.00. ISBN 1-880875-24-1.
Review essay published in American Archivist (Vol.
65, No.1, Spring/Summer 2002)
The National Archives deserves high praise for the publication of this
much expanded and greatly needed guide to records of genealogical value
in its holdings. Following the same format as the earlier editions, this
volume includes descriptions of records series, research strategies to
use the records, illustrations of records described, and extensive tables
delineating specific holdings or related secondary reference sources.
An enlarged index increases ease of access and use.
The volume is divided into four sections, each with a number of chapters:
population and immigration records include censuses, passenger arrivals
and naturalizations; military records explore records of the regular army,
volunteers, naval and marine service, pensions, bounty land warrants,
and other records; records relating to particular groups include those
concerning civilians during wartime, Native Americans, African Americans,
merchant seamen, and civilian government employees; and other useful records
encompass land records, claims records, records of the District of Columbia,
miscellaneous records, and cartographic records. Within each of these
chapters individual records series may be described in a single sentence
or several paragraphs and may consist of a single item (an 1886 census
of Sioux Indians living on the Lake Traverse Reservation in the Dakotas)
or thousands of rolls of microfilm (nearly 2800 rolls for the main series
of letters received by the Adjutant General's Office between 1822 and
Record descriptions are clear, concise, and contain additional information
that may assist in the use of the records, including the presence of indexes,
microfilm publications, or related printed works or archival collections.
Series titles are in bold type to enable faster identification. For especially
large or complex record groups (census, naturalization, United States
District Courts, individual agencies of the Bureau of Indian Affairs,
and local offices of the General Land Office) expanded state-by-state
descriptions enable the editors to give very specific information about
special cases that may apply to only one specific state.
Much of the text and almost all of the illustrations from the nearly
twenty-year-old previous edition have been reused in this edition. There
was no reason to change what worked (and still works) well. However, many
records descriptions have been added or expanded, including an entirely
new description of the 1920 census, an expanded and clearer description
of the Soundex indexing system, and greater detail in describing the special
schedules that accompany the censuses. Especially significant are the
additions of many new records series relating to Native Americans and
the inclusion of records relating to specific tribes and field offices.
Throughout the volume, narrative search strategies and 'helpful hints'
for the genealogist/user are included in the text. The expansion of these
descriptions is most welcome. These guidelines not only direct researchers
to more series, but also permit them to filter out less useful ones. As
genealogists generally move away from simply completing ancestral and
descendancy charts to compiling data about the historical context in which
their ancestors lived and worked, such search strategies become even more
necessary. The inclusion of numerous lists of reference information papers,
expanded descriptions available in published form, and other related works
will assist many researchers in developing their own research strategies.
Finally, the inclusion of information about events affecting the access
to, or preservation of, records (e.g., the fire in the National Personnel
Records Center in St. Louis) adds to the timeliness of this volume.
Other improvements enhance the value of this volume. The inclusion of
many more records that are housed in the regional branches of the National
Archives, some relating to a small geographic area and others having more
nationwide significance, is a wonderful asset to researchers. Some of
these additions are undoubtedly new acquisitions, but others appear to
reflect a greater recognition of the importance, value, and potential
use of records created by federal field offices and local federal district
courts. Expanded historical sketches of agencies place many more records
in a clearer administrative context. Lastly, the use of white paper stock,
rather than the cream color of the previous edition, makes the volume
easier to read.
The decision of which series to include and which to exclude in a volume
such as this is not an enviable one. The editors have done a good job
of including what appear to be the most useful series among the massive
quantity of records in the federal archives system. However, many genealogists,
including this reviewer, always wish for more. Even though the release
of the 1930 census was two years away from the publication date of this
volume, it would have been nice to include some data about its size, scope,
and imminent availability. Expanded descriptions of the information relating
to individuals that can be found in the general correspondence files of
agencies, especially in the nineteenth century, could have received greater
emphasis. And, finally, notwithstanding the inclusion of the naturalization
records of the U.S. district courts, other records created by those bodies
also have substantial genealogical value.
The text and tables appear accurate. However, I noted that Table 22 omits
Colorado, Mississippi, and Oregon as public land states. Researchers should
keep this in mind as they peruse the volume.
A more serious limitation is the lack of description of many electronic
databases that either assist access to or correlate with some of the federal
records. Some are briefly mentioned; others are not mentioned at all.
Even though several of these (e.g., the database of Ellis Island immigrants)
were not operational at the time of publication, their eventual availability
was known and much anticipated within the genealogical community. It would
have been useful to at least mention the possibility of these potential
One cautionary thought about the use of this volume is in order. The
volume is dense and the narrative is packed with specifics. This is not
a volume that one sits down to read for a length of time. Even the most
dedicated genealogist will need to approach it in small portions to absorb
the vast amount of detail, both about the records and about the bureaucracy
that created them. As an archivist and an avid genealogist, this reviewer
required numerous timeouts just to let the enormous amount of information
be processed into research strategies and into how a particular records
series might be useful in one's own research.
Because genealogists form such an important user group for most archives,
this volume should be invaluable to archivists in serving that constituency.
Many state and local archives will have records that correlate with, or
at least, complement these holdings. Furthermore, archivists would do
well to study this volume as an appraisal tool. This guide graphically
demonstrates the breadth of records that agencies have created over time
and that can now be valuable for research. To these ends, this volume
belongs on the reference shelf of each archives and local history society
serving the public.
Duane P. Swanson
Minnesota Historical Society