How to Conduct Effective Research on WWII Units at National Archives II
by Wesley Johnston
Bookmark this page as
Last updated: August 30, 2010 - What's New?
Stuck in someone's frames? Click here or you can right click anywhere on this page and then choose "Open Frame in New Window" to break out.

Assuming that you have already done your homework and thoroughly looked at the National Archives web site and my copies of the finding aids for the National Archives materials on World War II, you are now ready to make a trip to College Park, Maryland to do on-site research at the National Archives II building -- the largest archival building in the world. This web page will take you through the steps to doing that research effectively. While I may throw in some links, this is going to be high-level, so that you may have to check on the Archives web site for some things -- e.g. phone numbers.

I am going to assume that you are taking a laptop and scanner and digital camera -- which sounds expensive but which, if you have many records to copy, is a lot faster and cheaper than using the copy machines.

I recommend that you be there at least three days. This will give you a chance to step back each night and see what you did right and wrong that day, so that you can do better research the next day. It also gives you a chance to fill out some pull slips in your room, rather than taking time away from your research at the Archives.

If possible, plan to go back within a year after your first visit. This will give you enough time at home to work on the records that you gathered on your first trip and to identify the gaps in your research and do some web-based research and make better plans for your second trip.

Before you go ...

When you are at the Archives, you want to make the best use of your time -- especially if you are paying a lot of money for travel and lodging to be there. So doing some work before you go can save you a lot of wasted time while you are there -- and save you the giref of realizing only when you return home that you overlooked something while you were there. You will also find that when you have done intense work at the Archives, you will be glad when you return home that you had the following structural supports, which will help you keep track of the mass of things that you captured in your research while you were at the Archives.

To make the best use of your time while you are there, you should make a spreadsheet list of all of the things you might want to look at. I assign a priority to each one, and then sort on the priority. As I work at the Archives, I shade the completed rows gray, so that I can quickly see which records I still need to pull. The columns I use are: priority, records (my own 10 words or less description of my target), boxes (the Archives box numbers, if I have been able to find them in the finding aids), objective (what specifically I want from this search), and on-site status (for when I am there).

I also set up another spreadsheet to capture the details for every folder in every box that I know of, whether I am searching it or not. This spreadsheet has the following worksheets:

  • Box-level Worksheet (one row per Archives box)
    The box-level worksheet has columns for the box number, the label on the box, a "Had?" column ("Yes" or blank, to indicate if I have ever had it pulled), status (usually "done" or blank), my own very brief description of the box (usually the unit that created the records), my own not-too-long description of the contents, the number of folders in the box, the total number of images that I captured (scans, photos, photocopies), and a comment about what I found or did in my search of that box. I fill this in for each new box that I start work on, and when I am done with the folders in the box, I add the image counts and comments and status.
  • Folder-level Worksheet (one row per folder within a box)
    This is the worksheet that I really work off of most of the time while I am actually at the Archives. The columns are box number, box label, folder number, folder title, folder contents (my own comments), scan count, photo count.
  • Document-level Worksheet (one row per document within a folder)
    This is the lowest level worksheet. I fill it in after my research is completed and I am back home. But it is also a valuable record for me to refer to on subsequent visits, to check whether or not I really do have something.
  • Worksheets for Other (i.e. non RG 407) Record Groups
    There are also separate worksheets for boxes of other record groups besides RG 407. The vast majority of WWII unit records are in Record Group 407 (Adjutant General's Office). So the boxes referred to above are all assumed to be in RG 407, and these separate worksheets are to handle other record groups.

    I also set up a folder structure within my computer's folders, which will be where I store the images that I capture in my research. I use a hierarchy of Archives folder with Archives box within unit. For example working down the hierarchy, I will have a folder for 7th Armored Division, which will have computer folders within it for the various units within the Division. The 48th Armored Infantry Battalion computer folder will contain computer folders for all of the Archives boxes holding 48 AIB records. The computer folder folder for Archives box 15708 will contain computer folders for all of the Archives folders within box 15708. And the files within the computer folder for Archives folder 4 in box 15708 will be the images of the scans or photos of the pages that are in that Archives folder.

    A week or two before you go, contact the Archives staff and request a pre-pull of a small number (5-10) of boxes. This way, there will be records waiting for you when you arrive, so that you will not sit around waiting for records with nothing to do. The Archives staff can help you if you are not sure which boxes to order, but keep this limited. Do not expect the Archives staff to do the work that you should be doing. For example, they can find and pull all the After Action Reports of XX Corps, but don't ask for much more than that. It is your job when you arrive at the Archives to find the box numbers to order, though the staff there will help you do that.

    Finally, make sure to bring a quarter with you. You'll need it for the lockers. If you forget, you can get change from the change machine in the cafeteria.

    Getting Started

    The first thing you need to do once you are through the security check is to go to the office on the right and register as a researcher. There you will do the following:

  • Enter personal information into a computer, have your picture taken, and receive your researcher card
  • Register all of your electronic equipment -- computer, scanner, camera -- and be given an equipment pass, which you must present to security whenever you enter the Archives and also to the internal security whenever you enter or leave the elevator area (which goes to the reading room) with equipment. So keep this pass with you just as much as you must keep your researcher card with you.
  • Have all papers and books checked and stamped if you plan to take them into the reading room. (I have found that if I set it all up on computer, then I am best off not taking any paper into or out of the reading room.)

    Now go to the researcher locker room. Either take the non-security elevator down or take the long staircase down to the lower level. Straight ahead of you from the elevator doors, behind a partition wall, are the doors to the researcher locker room. If you took the stairs, you can go to these doors by turning right or go in the other doors by turning left.

    Now put your things in a locker and get a cart for your electronic gear. This is when you find out if you remembered to bring a quarter. If you did not, you can sometimes find one in another locker door, if the prior occupant forgot to retrieve their quarter, or you can use the change machine in the cafeteria -- for which you have to go back upstairs. Put the quarter in, turn and remove the key, and take it with you. Put all non-essential stuff in the locker. You really do not want excess stuff in the reading room with you.

    Now go through the internal security and up to the reading room. Roll your cart to the elevator and go back up to the first floor. The internal security is just to your left as you exit the elevator. If you are there before opening (which I always am, so as not to waste any time), there may be a line so that you will stand until the exact minute of opening. Have your laptop open and all of your papers ready for examination, and have your researcher card and equipment pass ready. The guard needs to see all of this and to verify that the serial numbers on the equipment match your equipment pass. Finally, you can go on to the elevators and up to the reading room on the second floor.

    Check in at the desk in the reading room. Give them your researcher card. Show them your scanner and have them give you a lamp-sheet for your scanner, which you attach to the arm of the lamp at your space at your work table. (Scanner lamp-sheets are not used on Saturdays.) Make sure to give them back the sticker at the end of the day.

    Now take your cart to a workspace, and then go over to the pull retrieval desk, which is halfway down the reading room, on the opposite side of the room from the main desk. Give them your researcher card, and tell them that you have requested a pre-pull, which should be available for you.

    They will roll out a cart with your boxes on it and give you a large laminated place-holder card. Roll the cart back to your table. At last, you are ready to do some research.

    Research Do's and Don'ts

    It is extremely important that you do clean research and follow the rules. The rules are there to make sure that these records survive and that they are always in the same order and can be found in their proper place by later researchers. Yes, you will find things that seem to be out of order, but leave them in the order that you find them. Scan them, and you can then arrange your scans at home in whatever order you think it should be.

    Before you scan anything, obtain a declassification sticker. Take the first box you are going to work on up to the main desk and show them the records and obtain a declassification sticker. You must then put that sticker on your scanner, so that it appears on every image that you take. And if you take photos, you must make sure that sticker appears in every photo. This is only true for records formally marked SECURE or RESTRICTED and now declassified. But that's probably going to be the majority of what you will copy. Be sure to return and sign back in your "declass" sticker at the end of the day.

    Never work on more than one box at a time.
    Never take more than one folder out of a box at a time.
    Never handle more than one page at a time.
    Never work with folders or pages in your lap.
    Never put your own papers into or on top of record pages.
    This is hard to get used to at first, but it is extremely important that you do this. It is all too easy to get things mixed up otherwise -- and put a page back in the wrong place or in the wrong folder -- or put a folder in the wrong box, so that some later researcher will follow the finding aids, only to find that what was supposed to be there is not there any more. The reason for keeping your papers out of the record pages is mostly acid content in your paper. The main desk has acid-free paper for taking notes or using as backing paper, and they also have long strips of acid free paper that can be used as place-holders within a folder.

    The best way to work is to take a box off the cart and put it on the table. Then take the large place-holder laminated card that they gave you and place it in the box behind the folder that you want to look at. Then remove the folder from the box and lay it flat on the table. Open the folder. If there is a clip securing all pages, remove it. If you are at all uncertain how to remove it, replace the document in the folder, and take the entire folder to the main desk for them to remove it. When you work, leave the unsearched papers in a pile on the right, and take each sheet one at a time and scan it and then place it in a pile on the left, in the same order that you found it. When you have scanned all that you want from the folder, re-secure them with the clip, if there was one, close the folder, and put the folder back into the box in front of the laminated place-holder card. Then remove the folder that is just behind the place-holder card and process that folder. You have thus left the folder laying flat on the table the entire time it was open (other than a trip to the main desk), and you have never taken more than one page out of the folder and have always replaced that page in the exact same order that you found it. That's clean research. No matter how rushed you feel for time, do NOT violate these clean work habits or some later researcher may find the records in disarray or damaged or completely missing from where they are supposed to be.

    Never carry a single document outside its folder, other than for immediate copying.
    If you need to carry a document anywhere away from your work area, return it to the folder, and mark its place with a long acid-free place-holder strip (which are near the copy machines). Then close the folder and take the entire folder to carry where you are going.

    Never remove staples from documents.
    If a document is stapled, so that the staples obscure text or images or so that folding the pages back would damage them, then replace the document in the folder, using one of the Archives acid-free place-holder strips to keep the place of your document easily visible, and take the entire folder up to the main desk, and ask them to remove the staples. Once they have removed the staples, go to the little bins at either end of the main desk and take a small piece of acid-free paper and a paper clip. Fold the acid-free paper strip over the top of the group of pages that just had the staple removed, and then secure those pages together by putting the paper clip over the acid-free paper. Then put the document back into the folder in its proper place, close the folder, and take the folder back to your work area.

    Never scan documents that are too large to fit on your scanner platten.
    If a document, such as a map or an overlay, is too large to fit on your scanner platten, you can use your digital camera -- with the flash off to take pictures of it. If it is very large, you can ask the pull retrieval desk staff for permission to use one of the large tables in the glass-enclosed reserved rooms to lay the overlay out. You can obtain (from the main desk) white acid-free backing paper to put behind thin overlays, so that the marbling in the tables does not show up in your photos. When moving from the work space to a large table, make sure to replace the document in the folder and take the entire folder to the large table. Also remember to take the declassification sticker with you, so that it can appear in every photo. I take segment photos, which I can then stitch together with software at home.

    Handle fragile documents with super-extreme care.
    This is one of the VERY important reasons that you should plan enough days to be at the Archives, so that you will not feel the pressure to get too much done in too little time. This pressure is a great reason why people become careless and misfile documents or folders in the wrong place -- or even worse: they damage a document that can never be repaired or replaced because their lack of planning has become their excuse for why they are somehow too special to abide by the rules that everyone else abides by. In particular, large maps that have been folded for 60 years (a) do not unfold quickly without damaging them -- sometimes breaking them into pieces and (b) do not refold quickly once they have been unfolded. Great care must be taken with these folded papers -- which means accepting the fact that you must plan for the time to do this right.

    Research Management

    Use your spreadsheets. The spreadsheets that you created before you came are an integral part of your work at the Archives. When I start a new box, I always enter it into the Box-level Worksheet. And for each folder in the box, as I start to work with it, I make an entry into the Folder-level Worksheet. When I am done with a folder, I make sure to enter how many scans and photos that I made from that folder and to enter any comments or status updates that are relevant. When I have finished all the folders in a box, I total up the sum of all of the images of any type and enter that in the Box-Level Worksheet. When I have completed all the boxes for a particular research priority, I color that row gray in my research priority spreadsheet, making any comments or on-site status updates that are relevant. This is a critically important step. You do not want to get home and not be able to know what you did or did not pull or copy or at least look at while you were there.

    Scan into the right computer folder with the right file names: For each Archives folder, I set my scanner parameters to name files with the box and folder number and a sequential number. Then I can just scan the documents of the folder in order, letting them go to the default computer folder for scanned images. After I have made the scans, I copy those files from the default computer folder over to the computer folder for that Archives folder nubmer within the computer folder for that Archives box. In this way, my files are easily retrievable when I get home, and each file's name also tells exactly what box and folder it was in at the Archives.

    Do back-ups nightly. No matter how tired I am at the end of the day, when I get back to my room, the first thing that I do is to start backing up all the image files that I created or all the spreadsheet files that I updated that day. I came to the Archives to obtain these, and it would be a great loss to get home and find that somehow my only copy of them was corrupted. I use a 1 TB Toshiba portable external hard drive. This stuff is too important to lose it and waste all those hours of work and expenses of travel.

    Requesting more pulls: On your first day, you need to not only start work on the boxes that you obtained in your pre-pull but also to spend some time with the research assistance staff (in the glassed in room at the west end, the end closest to the entry doors) and learn how to fill out pull forms and how to find out what records are available and how to know how to request those records. Once you do this, you can submit a second pull. They will hold two carts for you -- the one you are working on and one more -- so that another cart will be ready when you are done with the one you are working on and you do not lose time sitting waiting for a pull. It is also a good idea to take a few blank pull forms home with you and fill more of them in at home, so that you do not waste future research time filling them out when you are at the Archives. You can take the pull request forms through the internal security without having to have them stamped. I always scan my completed pull request forms, so that I have an exact record of every pull that I requested -- and so that I can see again later how to fill out a pull request form correctly.

    Hold or reshelve? When the day ends and you have not finished your cart, you can ask them to hold it for you when you return your cart to the pull retrieval area. When you are completley finished with a cart, tell them that it can be reshelved, so that other researchers who are looking for the same boxes can find them. If you have another cart and you want to work on it for a while and then come back to the cart you are working on now, you must first return the cart that it is out now and have them hold it.

    Don't forget your quarter. When it is time to go home, you go back to the locker room and pack up. Don't forget that your quarter comes back to you at the end of the day. So after you have opened your locker, take your quarter out and keep it ready for the next day's research.

    Copyright © 2010 by Wesley Johnston.
    All rights reserved

    Click here for the 7th Armored Division Document Repository.
    Click here for the 7th Armored Division home page.
    Click here for information about contacting me.