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National Archives Launches Web Service
Posted On April 14, 2003
The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA; has opened a Web-based service called Access to Archival Databases (AAD;, which offers a selection of NARA's most popular electronic records. AAD marks the first publicly accessible application developed under the auspices of NARA's Electronic Records Archives Program, a program designed to solve the problem of preserving federal government records created and stored in electronic formats.

Currently, AAD draws on data from over 30 series to open access to 350 databases from 20 federal agencies, encompassing some 50 million records. NARA plans to expand the system to some 500 databases, probably by next year. There is no charge for using the AAD service.

In announcing the new service, John W. Carlin, Archivist of the United States, said: "Until we launched AAD, researchers needed to contact us directly to gain access to our electronic records. Sometimes we were able to supply them with copies of specific records after a period of time, but frequently they needed to purchase a copy of the entire file. Now they only need access to a computer connected to the Internet to reach these selected records. AAD is a crucial step toward fulfilling our mission by providing the public with ‘ready access to essential evidence.'"

Beta testing of the AAD service began last winter, according to NARA representative, Susan Cooper, with a release to in-house reference staff. Sometime in February, NARA opened links to the AAD service on its Web site, but with no fanfare. Users of the site began to discover it and, following on this "soft launch," NARA made it official.

Most of the AAD databases identify specific persons, geographic areas, organizations, and dates. Some files index other archival records not available in electronic format. The new service allows users to search, retrieve, print, and download records. However, the system does not support quantitative or statistical analysis of data. It does provide background information on the records, including code lists, explanatory notes from NARA staff, and, for some series or files, related documents. Much of the documentation consists of downloadable scanned image files of print documentation.

Searchers need to determine the series and file units they want before beginning a search. To do this, searchers first select a series from the lists offered: All Series, People, Indexes to Other Records, Subject, Geographic Areas, Organization, Time Spans, and Creator. Each of the series may have subtopics. Below the subtopics come file units and below those, lists of specific files. Help documentation connects to listings throughout the search process. Having selected a series, users then locate a specific data file within the series, and then search for specific records by entering search terms, such as personal names, dates, cities, and states. Once retrieved, searchers may view, print, or download records.

Several of the popular databases cover U.S. military history:

  • preservation survey of Civil War sites
  • Japanese-American internee files from World War II
  • POWs from World War II and the Korean War
  • combat casualties from the Vietnam and Korean Wars.
  • after action combat and air sortie reports from the Vietnam War
  • military prime contracts in excess of $10,000, 1965-1975

Other files cover immigration, e.g., Port of New York ship passenger lists,1846-1851 (also known as the Irish Famine database); the space program, e.g., indexes to black and white and color NASA photographs, 1958-1991; and public corporations, e.g., Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) Ownership Reporting System, 1978-1998 and SEC Proposed Sales of Securities System (Insider trading), 1972-1993.

To assist users in locating relevant data sets, AAD has a number of links to supporting material. For example, NARA offers a Title List to some of its electronic records holdings, listed by Record Group or government agency, and specifying record status. NARA also has special coverage of records concerning the most popular search topics received by the agency's reference services. The service also has a training module called the AAD Pathfinder that graphically represents the overall AAD research process and how to use the system. Besides a narrative overview and sample search, the AAD system also has a "Where Am I?" link available throughout the site.

Within days of announcing the launch, NARA reported thousands of researchers flocked to the site, leading to longer wait times. NARA promised to add additional capacity to handle the load. Modifications have already been made and current users report improved turnaround times.

The AAD site indicates that it is designed to work best with either Microsoft Internet Explorer, 5.5 or above, or Netscape Communicator, 4.7 and above.

Barbara Quint was senior editor of Online Searcher, co-editor of The Information Advisor’s Guide to Internet Research, and a columnist for Information Today.

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