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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 1889).

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 access tools.

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


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