A Catalog for the Records, 1936

Today’s post is written by Alan Walker, an Archivist in the Textual Records Division at the National Archives at College Park.

Today, if you can’t make it in to a National Archives facility or presidential library, you will be diving into our online catalog to find what you’re looking for. But in the early days of the agency, the research process was “hands on” from beginning to end. Here is the story of how our catalog began.

Getting records in the door was only the opening salvo in the battle; now our staff had to perfect their organization, house them, and create a system for accessing them.

64-NA-250, Records of the National Recovery Administration in the Receiving Room, Oct. 1940 (NAID 12168722).

One of the first operating units established for the Archives was a Division of Cataloging. At first, it had a slightly different name:

RG 64, P 39, file 051-46 - 8 - Catalogue Division Org. Chart, Dec. 1935
File 051-46, National Archives Catalogue Division, Organization Chart, December 1935 (NAID 7518524)

The new division needed supplies, and a reference library. Here’s a list of publications that it required at the outset:

Russell Memo re LC Publications for Div. of Cataloging, Oct. 1935 - RG 64, A1 36
Memorandum Regarding Library of Congress Publications, October 29, 1935 (NAID 4489117).

One of the first catalogs the division created was for newly-arrived records:

RG 64. A1 36 - Aug. 6, 1936 Memo excerpt - temp. catalogs for new accessions
Memorandum Excerpt, Temporary Catalog Cards, August 6, 1936 (NAID 44489117)

Attached to this memo were these two sample cards:

RG 64, A1 36 - file Procedure - Temp. Cards for Accessions, attached to Aug. 6, 1936 Memo
File “Procedure” (NAID 4489117)

Another unit established early on at the Archives was the Division of Classification:

RG 64, P 39, file 051-46 - 7 - Classification Division Org. Chart, Dec. 1935
File 051-46, National Archives Classification Division, Organization Chart, December 1935 (NAID 7518524)

Personnel of both divisions shared office space in room 400. This was just as well, because much of the work of the two units was complementary.

64-NA-193 Division of Cataloging and Classification, 1937
64-NA-193 – Annotated by author (original: NAID 12168572) Divisions of Cataloging [foreground] and Classification [rear], November 17, 1937.

While the classifiers looked over the records in order to gain understanding of their organization and creating entities, the catalogers were researching the administrative history of the creating agencies and preparing bibliographies relating to them.

Roster of Divisions of Cataloging and Classification, 1937 - from Register, pp. 4-5 - pt. 1
Division of Classification, Division of Cataloging, from the Register of the National Archives, September 1937, pp. 4-5 (NARA Library).
64-NA-195 Almon R. Wright in Div. of Classification and Cataloging, 1937
64-NA-195, Almon R. Wright, Division of Classification, Examining Records, 1937 (NAID 12168574).

Staff of the Division of Cataloging created multiple sets of catalogs of agency histories and bibliographies, which were used in the Central Research Room, the search rooms of custodial units, and other offices. Here are some examples of the cards which the staff churned out. These are from a bibliography on archival subjects:

Sample Cards from Archives Bibliography - RG 64, A1 37
Cards from Archives Bibliography (NAID 4516125)

Here is a view of the Central Search Room, and its hundreds of catalog drawers, pictured in 1938:

64-NA-205 Central Search Room with Visitors, April 5, 1938 - cropped
64-NA-205 (cropped), Central Search Room, April 5, 1938 (NAID 12168594).

The Division of Cataloging helped draw up the specs for those file drawers:

Plans for Index Card Drawers in Search Room - RG 64, A1 36
Plans for Index Cabinets in Search Room, April 15, 1936 (NAID 4489117)

Here is a report of the division’s activities during 1938:

Activities of the NA, Jan. 1939 - Work of Div. of Cataloging, pp. 4-5
Activities of the National Archives, January 1939, pp.4-5 (NAID 4212454)

Here are examples of cards from that “official catalog”

Evangeline Thurber_1941
Evangeline Thurber, 1941

Then, as now, there was much discussion about proper terminology for subject authorities. These slips were found in the subject authority catalog:

Questions about subject authorities - RG 64, A1 39
Packing Houses (NAID 4516125)

As the Roosevelt Library was being established, staff at the Archives Building were in constant communication with its staff on a variety of matters relating to equipment and procedures. Here is an explanation of the color coding of the catalog cards and other topics, for the benefit of the Library’s staff as it was establishing its own catalog:

Letter from Esther S. Chapin, Acting Chief, Division of Cataloging, to Fred W. Shipman, Director, Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, January 28, 1941. File “Firms, Individuals, and Organizations” (NAID 4489117).

This 1939 pamphlet sports a stylish illustration on its cover, and discusses the types of “finding mediums” which visitors could consult at the Archives Building:

The work of the National Archives was featured in a densely illustrated Sunday supplement for The Washington Post in 1940. Here are three staff members of the Division of Cataloging:

Work of the Div. of Cataloging, in Washington Post, Sept. 8, 1940
Newspaper clipping from The Washington Post, file “1940” (NAID 7582964).

The newspaper even gave us a contact print of Miss Cobb for our files:

64-NA-359, Miss Cobb
64-NA-359, Miss Cobb (copy print is NAID 12168954).

By the time that this story was published, change was on the horizon. You can see what a tedious business it was: analyzing records, indexing, and creating and updating multiple sets of catalog cards. With ever-increasing amounts of records coming to the Archives, it would be impossible to continue doing things this way with our limited resources. Nothing could better illustrate the problem than this memo:

A Finding Mediums Committee was established in 1940 to survey the problem and look for solutions. Here, Director of Research and Publications Solon J. Buck solicits information on how other institutions are using their catalogs:

RG 64, A1 36 - file Firms, Individuals, and Orgs - Buck Letter re Catalog Problems, Aug. 1940
Letter from Solon J. Buck to Dr. Grace Lee Nute, August 19, 1940. File “Firms, Individuals, and Organizations” (NAID 4489117).

As a result of the committee’s work, Archivist R.D.W. Connor issued this memorandum in February 1941:

Memo A-142 - Header
Header: Memorandum No. A-142, Subject: Finding Mediums, February 28, 1941

(See this PDF attachment for the full text: Finding Mediums and Establishment of the Record Group Feb. 28, 1941 – NA Memo A-142)

From this memorandum, the concept of the record group was adopted. The Division of Classification was abolished, and its functions were moved to the custodial units established in 1937-1938. The Division of Cataloging was also terminated. Cataloging of library materials would continue, but library methods would no longer be sufficient for our archival records. And so the age of the inventory began:


All records used in this post come from Record Group 64, Records of the National Archives and Records Administration, unless otherwise noted. Links to the specific series follow below:

Authority Lists, 1936-1941 (NAID 4516125)

General Files of Memorandums Sent and Received, 1935-1941 (NAID 4489117)

Historic Photograph File of the National Archives Events and Personnel, 1935-1975 (NAID 518146)

Identification Cards for Employees, 1941-1942 (NAID 7563237)

Issues of “Activities of the National Archives”, 1938-1947 (NAID 4212454)

Official Catalog of Accessioned Records, Organizations, Subjects, and Proper Names, 1938-1941 (NAID 4521087)

Planning and Control Case Files, 1943 – 1976 (NAID 7518524)

Press Clippings, 1935 – 1963 (NAID 7582964)

Publications [Record Set of National Archives Publications], 1935-2011 (Entry P 74)

4 thoughts on “A Catalog for the Records, 1936

  1. Great story for researchers and Volunteers! Appreciated the picture of the research room in 1938 and puts the story behind the card catalog drawers that many folks in past years wondered what they were for when they were in the AI Research Room.

  2. I would love for a subsequent article to pick up the plans set forth in the 1941 memo and describe how they were subsequently modified. For example, it seems that the memo invisioned only final Inventories having historical sketches of agencies and the creation of their records. But those features were also part of Preliminary Inventories (which the memo does not seem to anticipate being published for distribution to researchers, but of course many were, with the familiar orange covers.) And why orange? Is there a memo somewhere detailing how the decision of what color to use for the cover stock was made?

Comments are closed.