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.
One of the first operating units established for the Archives was a Division of Cataloging. At first, it had a slightly different name:
The new division needed supplies, and a reference library. Here’s a list of publications that it required at the outset:
One of the first catalogs the division created was for newly-arrived records:
Attached to this memo were these two sample cards:
Another unit established early on at the Archives was the Division of Classification:
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.
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.
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:
Here is a view of the Central Search Room, and its hundreds of catalog drawers, pictured in 1938:
The Division of Cataloging helped draw up the specs for those file drawers:
Here is a report of the division’s activities during 1938:
Here are examples of cards from that “official catalog”
Then, as now, there was much discussion about proper terminology for subject authorities. These slips were found in the subject authority catalog:
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:
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:
The newspaper even gave us a contact print of Miss Cobb for our files:
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:
As a result of the committee’s work, Archivist R.D.W. Connor issued this memorandum in February 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)