Know Your Archives 2: Archives II (NARA-College Park)

Cara Burnidge

For the past month, I've been thinking about American religion in the world. Following RAAC 2017, I drove to College Park, Maryland for three weeks of research at the National Archives at College Park (or, Archives II).  Every other year, the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations meets in D.C. and many members (myself included) use these D.C. years to do research. Two birds, one travel expense stone. Building off of Lauren's fantastic review of this year's SHAFR meeting and Mike's Know Your Archives: NARA edition, I'd like to give everyone a few more tips for researching at Archives II in College Park (where State Department records are held) and share some very important news for any colleagues working on the World War I era. 

First, who should consider researching at A2 or writing about religion in US  foreign relations? Anyone who's research interests intersect with the US government's actions abroad. As I wrote in Religious Influences in American Foreign Policy for ORE, "Any civilian who served as an informant, as a formal or informal diplomat, or who aided in creating policy decisions will intersect with NARA. Any federal employee who appealed to a religious figure, group, or event to aid in the implementation of foreign relations will also intersect with NARA." So...lots of us.

Next, how can you make the most of a trip to A2?

1.) Write to the archivists before your visit. Mike gave this tip, it's listed on the NARA "Plan Your Research Visit" page, and on this helpful Archival Survival Guide , but I'm reiterating it here anyway. Why? A.) Archivists are your best friend. The records related to U.S. foreign relations are complicated. The arrangement and documentation styles within the archives have changed over the years--leading scholars to cite the same records in different ways, assuming they are cited correctly in the first place--so you will need the expertise of archivists to locate the stuff you're interested, especially if you've never been there before. It's in your best interest to keep a running list of the citations that inspired your work and bring that with you. (I recommend you do so electronically, but more on that later). Basically, record organization and the retrieval process are not intuitive, so don't try to be a hero and go it alone. You'll still find plenty of material on your own, but the archivists will be able to navigate you to better sources. Trust them. Lean on them.

Why else should you write the archivists in advance? B.) Because I didn't do it and you should learn from my mistake. To explain: two years ago (the last time when SHAFR was in D.C.), I did write in advance, but on that trip I wasn't able to make it through my entire checklist. So, I didn't write in advance this time around. I planned on finishing the list I had already created. I was wrong to do that. That was a terrible idea. And here's the important news for fellow early 20th century historians:
For the anniversary of World War I, NARA digitized the American Commission to Negotiate Peace Records (RG 256)! The ACNP represented the U.S. at the Paris Peace Conference. All of their documents, 277 linear feet--which two years ago were available via microfilm [M820]--are now available to download as pdfs. Game. changer.
Did this make my trip useless? Not in the slightest. It meant that I could refocus my attention on entirely different records because I can go through M820 from the comfort of home.

2.) Bring a quarter. You are restricted in what you can bring into the research rooms. A2 has lockers available to use, but they require a quarter.  If you're a millennial ruining the world like me, then you might not be carrying any cash. A heads up my help.

3.) Stay hydrated. You obvi aren't allowed to take food and drink into the research rooms, so remember to get up and out of the room and hydrate. I got in a serious [nerdy] zone on several days and just didn't eat lunch or drink water. There is a I ended up hitting rush hour traffic hangry and dehydrated. Not a good look.

8.) It's a marathon, not a sprint [even if you're there only for a short time]. It's in your best interest to spend the whole day there, because there are scheduled pull times (M-F 10AM, 11AM, 1 PM, 2PM, & 3PM; no pulls on Saturday). After a couple of days, I worked out a much better system that didn't leave me hangry. I would start out the day early, bringing my phone, headphones, and researcher card with me to the research rooms. When my battery got low, I would head back down to the basement locker rooms (through the stairs not the elevators to stretch my legs), eat a snack and hydrate, then head back up with my portable charger in tow. It might take a day or two to figure out how it can work for you.

5.) Transportation & Accommodation. For the second time, I stayed at an AirB&B about a mile from A2. But whether you are nearby or not, there are plenty of public transit options to get you there and low cost places to stay. Which leads to another hot tip:

6.) If you can, don't go during the summer. Summers seem to be perfect because many of us are not teaching or have more limited teaching assignments, but that's precisely why another time is better. A2 can be more crowded during the summer, especially the week before and after SHAFR. Tour groups, summer camps, etc. can cause the staff to be stretched a little thin and less likely to give you as much time and attention as they could at other times during the year (see #1).

7.) Digitize your work flow. Like most research facilities, you are limited in what you can bring into the research rooms. Whenever you leave the research area, security will check your belongings. Any loose papers need to get a stamp of approval for you to carry in and out of the research area. I preferred to avoid that hassle, so I scanned any loose notes I needed and used a Google sheet with my running "look list". Free wifi makes Google Drive, Dropbox, and other online platforms easy to use. If this isn't your thing, though, that's okay too. There are plenty of people who bring flat bed scanners, their laptops, and various chargers with them into the rooms. There are carts available for you to use if that's the case. Whatever your flow looks like, don't be surprised if you're spending your time scanning and taking pictures for hours. Most people I talked to at SHAFR reported as much.

While you're getting beyond the loose paper, don't forget that there are more than just textual records to look at. There are maps, photos, films, and various audio recordings. Just when you think you've looked all you can look at, there will be more to possibly look at. But that's the joy and the frustration of researching at A2. FWIW, I think it helps to have a clear sense of your project and defined search priorities before arriving. It helps me, at least, from feeling too overwhelmed with all the possibilities to explore.

8) Finally, keep in mind that you might be able to do research from home. (See #1) If you're doing military research (Free research for Revolutionary Era records through July 15th!) or interested in any topic on this list of digitized microfilm, then you are in luck. If you don't find anything there, then you can browse by topic here or search the Foreign Relations of the United States here.