October 10 was Electronic Records Day (1010 - data is all made up of zeroes and ones, get it?) and two reference staff members from the Electronic Records Division posted a blog post on the "Pieces of History" blog. We hope that you enjoy it.
John LeGloahec: I joined the National Archives in June of 2006 as an archives specialist in the Electronic Records Division, working on processing the electronic records of the federal government.
One day, I received a message from a researcher asking about some of our records, the Gorgas Hospital Mortuary Records (National Archives Identifier 570981). I spoke with a member of the reference staff, and she told me to go ahead and answer it. I was immediately bit with the reference bug. Within a few years, I had started spending half my time working on reference requests.
Emily Graves: I joined the National Archives in December 2016 in my current role, as an archives technician in the reference section of the Electronic Records Division.
I’ve always had a love for electronic records since my first days of graduate school. It’s easy to confuse “electronic” and “digital” as synonyms, but in reality, electronic media has been around for a long time. In fact, the federal government has been generating electronic records since the first agencies made use of early computer prototypes in the 1950s. As a result, the range of electronic records in the custody of NARA is quite rich and varied. As someone working with access and reference, it’s always fun to watch researchers realize this and see all the valuable information our records can yield.
John LeGloahec: After I had been at the Archives for about four years, I became a full-time member of the reference team. I started out answering the “routine” requests: “I’m looking for my service records,” “my father was killed in Vietnam,” etc. I soon graduated to the more complex requests, dealing with specific data files in the custody of the Electronic Records Division.
Emily Graves: As a newcomer, a lot of what I’ve had to learn is the lay of the land—what systems are our records going into to preserve them? To provide access? To track them? Part of my job is to be able to use and understand these systems, which have grown up in the landscape over the course of years and are all inter-related.
For example, I had a researcher inquire about the Area Resource Files from the Department of Health and Human Services, which contain county-based information on a variety of health-related variables. The researcher wanted to know how far back in time the variables went—and this turned out not to be an easy question! After confirming the dates in the National Archives Catalog, I had to use two other finding aids, as well as look at the paper documentation, to confirm that only some the variables had data that went all the way back to the 1940s.
John LeGloahec: The next step in my evolution as a reference archivist was to begin assisting researchers with reproduction orders, wherein researchers would request that copies be made of specific files in our custody.
During this time, we also began to see a spike in requests regarding the records of the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (National Archives Identifier 2456161). The housing bubble had recently burst, and researchers were looking for answers in the historical record of previous mortgage applications.
Over the next few years, the Division fulfilled several orders for the HMDA data files. Around the same time, the National Archives Catalog was being revised and files were being uploaded directly into the catalog for researchers to download directly—the Division worked on making these files available for download—lessening the number of orders that Division had to fulfill.
The ordering process has also evolved during my time with the Division. Where we would normally get between 30 to 50 orders for files, the number has declined with the advent of files available directly from the Catalog. In addition, within the past few years, the National Archives created an “e-delivery system” where files are uploaded directly into the “cloud” for researchers to access via a secure link. This has greatly assisted researchers who cannot easily travel to the National Archives, specifically international researchers (and we don’t have to fill out those exhaustive customs forms any longer!).
Emily Graves: In a lot ways, reference for electronic records is like a treasure hunt. Sometimes the answer is obscured in the history of the records, the documentation accompanying the records, or sometimes it’s obscured in the data itself. We have a lot of tools to get to the X on the map, and learning how to use those tools most effectively is how I’ve begun in this position.
John LeGloahec: As a full-time member of the Electronic Records Reference Branch, my work still revolves around answering reference requests, but I spend a lot of my time working on preparing files for the National Archives Catalog, either through a “metadata prep” process or through the “auto-upload” process, where files (primarily .pdf files) are batch ingested into the catalog for direct download.
I use to say that I wouldn’t be happy working with electronic records—but now that I’ve been doing it for more than 10 years, I really enjoy my work and am always learning something new. Sometimes the process just needs some tweaking—there’s no reason to reinvent the wheel, but sometimes you need to put new tires on that wheel.