When you are looking for information these days, where’s the first place you turn? Let us guess: Google. Often times, we do the same. A quick Google search helps us identify repositories (archives, libraries, historical societies, government agencies, and the like) that might hold pertinent record collections for the projects we take on.
Today, most repositories include some information about their collections on their websites: a brief summary or overview of the collection, the number of linear feet or boxes that make up a collection, a collection’s time span. If we’re lucky, we can dig a little deeper using a repository’s online catalog to perhaps find the names of files or folders within a collection. A good example of such a catalog – and one that we use often – is the National Archives and Records Administration’s (NARA) Online Public Access.
But in an era where so much information can be found online thanks to Google, searchable online catalogs, and the digitization efforts underway at repositories across the country, it’s rare to find the documentation our clients need online or even in electronic format. NARA has over 12 billion pages of textual records in its holdings, only a small percentage of which is available online. This is why, on most days, you’ll find us out in the field, implementing a coordinated research strategy, because it’s also rare to find all the information we need in one record collection, let alone one repository.
Take, for example, our research projects related to asbestos litigation. We’re often hired to find documentation that identifies the manufacturers of machinery and equipment aboard U.S. Navy, Coast Guard, and Maritime Commission vessels as well as whether or not such equipment contained asbestos or asbestos-containing insulation materials. For these projects, we start by obtaining basic information about a ship from the Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Vessels. This encyclopedia-like volume is accessible online through the Naval History and Heritage Command.
Then we head into the field, which in this case is NARA, where we pull relevant boxes of documents from a variety of collections such as Record Group 19: Records of Bureau of Ships or Record Group 344: Records of the Naval Ship Systems Command. Sometimes we look at documents like ship plans or muster rolls on Microfilm, but most of the time we sit at tables and work as a team (research of this kind is rarely a solitary endeavor) to pore over folders containing that oh-so-twentieth-century medium—paper!
We may be moving towards an increasingly paperless society, but, in our line of work, paper is still king. In fact, we typically make paper copies of all the documentation we find – a necessary, if not so sexy, side of our job as researchers! Back in our offices in Old Town Alexandria, we sort through the documents and use them to piece together a comprehensive report that synthesizes the information we found. The documents along with the report are then sent to our clients around the country.