Know Your Archive: National Archives at College Park

Michael Graziano

Today's guest contributor is Michael Graziano, a Ph.D. Candidate at Florida State University. His dissertation explores the relationship between American religious institutions and U.S. intelligence services during the Cold War. You can find him on Twitter @grazmike.

I recently had the chance to spend an extended period of time working at the National Archives at College Park (or Archives II, as it is sometimes known). My experience was fantastic. I came away with oodles of quality material, and the archivists and support staff were wonderful. Yet, in talking with other ARH scholars about working at College Park, I’ve been surprised by how many assume it offers little beyond military or diplomatic records. While it certainly has those items, it also offers a great deal more. I thought that a post highlighting the strengths of the archive would be of use to those who may be considering a trip.

What’s the strength of College Park? Quite simply: if your topic involves the American state, they probably have a record of it. If you are researching anything that intersects with someone employed by the government or laws designed or enforced by the government, College Park has something for your project. The holdings are vast. One way to get a sense of what is available would be to scroll through the Archives’ blog, “The Text Message.” It provides a useful window into the types of records housed at different branches of the National Archives. To take one example, here’s an interesting post (illustrated with the actual documents) which offers a window into what is available in the records of the Office of the Chief of Chaplains.
For my own work at College Park, I had a few government agencies in particular that I was researching. Each sported a series of finding aids whose girth would put Ahlstrom to shame. For example, I worked a good bit with State Department records and was (delightfully!) overwhelmed with the quantity and scope of records available on-site, and on microfilm. Row upon row, cabinet upon cabinet, of microfilmed documents were readily available for my work. I’m only slightly exaggerating when I say it gave me Raiders of the Lost Ark flashbacks.

The assumption that our projects are not relevant to the State Department because our topic is religion would unwittingly narrow our source base. For instance, College Park has files on every nation that the US has interacted with, administrative records and correspondence for consulates, embassies (think: missionaries receiving passports, visas, and the like to do their work abroad), and documents concerning internal affairs (public health initiatives, military records, transportation and commerce, just to name a few). If a project does intersect with the State Department—which I suspect is a lot more than we normally realize—here's a to-do list that will keep you busy for a long time:

1. Consult the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS)

I learned at the recent SHAFR conference that the proper pronunciation of the acronym “FRUS” is the subject of heated debate among diplomatic historians (Is it FRUS as in “loose,” or FRUS as in “bus”?). However you choose to say it, FRUS is the published history of United States Foreign Relations produced by the State Department. It contains a variety of materials like memos, correspondence, and other records used behind the scenes. A copy of FRUS will be in a research university's library and there is an online database courtesy of University of Wisconsin. Despite its breadth—beginning in 1861 and filling 450 volumes (and counting)—it's only a fraction of what NARA has on file.

After consulting FRUS and finding something relevant to your interests—and important anecdotes for teaching with primary sources—the next step is to consult an archivist to see if NARA has more housed at College Park.

2. Write the archivists

As with any archive, the archivists are your best resource. For NARA, documents may move between various locations, be pulled for publication, be under review by Congress or the State Department, or be classified and unavailable to the public. Getting in touch with an archivist will help to determine whether a trip is necessary and, more importantly, if they currently have your materials on location. Pro tip: You should write approximately 4 weeks before you would want to visit. College Park archivists are in high demand, so be sure to plan in advance. (True story: While I was visiting, a researcher walked in and asked one of the archivists, “Do you have anything on FDR?” The archivist laughed, because he assumed the visitor was joking. The poor fellow was not joking.). In short, it is in your best interest to strategize lest you find yourself overwhelmed and having a poor research experience while you are there. (And in case you are wondering, College Park does have an item or two on FDR.)

3. Review the finding aids and online database

I know this is a no-brainer for seasoned historians, but this is especially crucial for researching at NARA because there is more than one location. Each facility has areas of specialty. College Park may not be the site that contains records pertinent to your interests. More importantly for historians without large budgets for research trips, many documents are contained on microfilm and available for purchase (though pricey at $125 each) or already in some university libraries (and perhaps accessible through interlibrary loan between universities).

Finally, as many of the recent blog posts on this site illustrate, attention to law and the state is picking up in studies of American religious history. Archives like the one housed at College Park will play an important role in helping us to produce good work on these topics, especially when we employ a little methodological creativity in tracking down information on “religion.”


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