By Monique Politowski
In 1971, the National Archives established the Center for the Documentary Study of the American Revolution through its American Revolution Bicentennial Administration (Records of the American Revolution Bicentennial Administration: RG 452), at Archives I in Washington, DC. As one of the major Bicentennial projects, the center was a sort of “one stop” location for the research of the American Revolution, and most importantly, the inception of the charters of freedom. But the greatest legacy of the Center was the creation of the Index: The Papers of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, published in 1978. The five-volume index, also known as the PCC Index, was a computer-assisted subject and name directory that included a descriptive chronological list of pre-Federal records.
The Center received a two-year $150,000 grant from the Ford Foundation to complete the PCC Index by 1973. Initially, the archives technicians were supposed to use the microfilm copies of the PCC to compile the guide, which consisted of:
- RECORDS OF THE CONTINENTAL AND CONFEDERATION CONGRESSES (NUMBERED SERIES) 1765-1821: Microfilm Publications: M247
- MISCELLANEOUS RECORDS OF THE CONTINENTAL AND CONFEDERATION
CONGRESSES (UNNUMBERED SERIES) 1774-1802: Microfilm Publications: M332
- RECORDS OF THE CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION 1787: Microfilm Publications: M866
Due to the poor condition of the microfilm, the archives technicians used the original documents from the National Archives’ holdings. Retired NARA archivist from the Access Programs Unit, Office of Records Services – Washington, DC (NW), Steven Tilley, described it as “such an interesting experience to have access to the original documents. Today, it may not happen. If they had to do it all over again, they might do it differently, but we actually handled the original records.” Mr. Tilley further reflected on his days working for the project in an interview describing his role and the team’s procedures:
“They called us indexers, and what our job was, we read every document in the various series. The papers were called items. They were mounted and fully volumes for the most part. We literally read every page and we index sheets we filled out by hand. There wasn’t a lot of technology at the time, but it was very primitive compared to today. We literally filled out these forms by hand and read every page as I said before, every name, every place, every subject. There were certain subjects that we entered. The staff worked its way through the various items and produced thousands of pages of index forms, which were then turned into an early form of computerization called digi-data form. The information from the digi-data cassettes, which were small cassettes, were transferred to computer tape. Then the computer tape was used to produce an index , a computer assisted index it was called in those days to the Papers of the Continental Congress. It was very exciting.”
It took the PCC Index team roughly five years to complete the detailed guide, but the outcome of their toil filling out thousands forms was worth the wait. Today the PCC Index is still widely used and it remains to be the standard guide to Record Group 360: the Records of the Continental and Confederation Congresses and the Constitutional Convention. Thanks to the Center for the Documentary Study of the American Revolution, we can easily conduct research drawing on pre-1789 records.
Other finding aids for RG 360 are Kenneth E. Harris and Steven D. Tilley, comps., Index: Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789 (1976) and Howard H. Wehmann, comp., and Benjamin L. DeWhitt, rev., A Guide to Pre-Federal Records in the National Archives (1989).
The quoted text from Steven Tilley was taken from the official transcription of his interview for the National Archives Assembly Legacy Project in December 2011. For more information about the interview, citation, and the Legacy Project please contact Assembly@nara.gov.