Today’s post was written by David Langbart, archivist in Textual Reference at the National Archives in College Park, MD.
The National Archives is pleased to announce that many important records of the Department of State are being digitized and made available online through the National Archives Catalog. The records consist largely of the various series of records that constitute the Department’s central files for the period from 1789 to 1906. Also included, however, are other series of value and interest.
For many years, the National Archives had an extensive program under which important and heavily-used records were reproduced on National Archives Microfilm Publications. This accomplished two things. First, the resulting publications were (and are, as digitized copies) offered for sale, thus making the records more widely available to researchers. Second, since the original records were withdrawn from circulation, the microfilming aided in the preservation of the records. National Archives Microfilm Publications cover a wide range of subjects including foreign relations; justice and law enforcement; land issues; military and intelligence matters; relations with Native Americans, Black Americans, and other people of color; communications; and immigration.
Over the past few years, Research Services has been carrying out a major effort to systematically digitize microfilm publications in the Microfilm Library. The goal is to create a Digital Microfilm Reading Room – accessible to anyone, anywhere, any time via the National Archives Catalog. Some commercial organizations such as Ancestry, Fold3, and FamilySearch have digitized some National Archives Microfilm Publications, either by scanning purchased copies of microfilm publications or through partnership agreements. Those organizations, however, have concentrated on publications with genealogy topics. The Research Services project covers all the microfilm publications. Because the records of the Department of State are among the most important and heavily used records in the holdings and the high demand for those records, the Digitization Division is making a concerted effort to digitize the microfilm publications of Department of State records.
Image quality varies across all of the microfilm publications, depending on the quality of both the records themselves and the original filming. The vendor with which the Archives worked made some image corrections to render the best image available but this did not always lead to improvements in the images. The vendor provided comprehensive audits of every digitized microfilm roll and identified major issues with images. Research Services will use that information to target future efforts to digitize the original records.
In October 2020, the microfilm publications of Despatches from Diplomatic Officers, 1789-1906, Notes from Foreign Missions, 1789-1906, and other series were uploaded to the Catalog. See below for descriptions of those records and links to the online resources. Still to come are the microfilm publications of the Despatches from Consular Offices, 1789-1906, other series constituting the central files, and additional Department of State files. Those microfilm publications will be posted throughout FY21. Future posts will announce and describe the records as they are uploaded to the Catalog.
National Archives Catalog Availability
As the images are uploaded, the Microfilm Catalog is modified to indicate that a publication is available digitally in the National Archives Catalog and include a direct link. Each microfilm publication will be described as a file unit and attached to the appropriate series description in the Catalog. Each roll within the microfilm publication will be described as an item with images and will be attached to its parent file unit description. Individual JPEGs will display for each microfilm frame/page and each roll of microfilm/item description will have a consolidated PDF of all of the frame/pages.
To assist researchers with using the records from the microfilm publications, supplemental information of varying detail about each publication is in the Microfilm Catalog. That information might be as simple as a roll listing or there might be a detailed description and guide to the records in a given microfilm publication. You will find the supplemental information by searching the Microfilm Catalog under the publication number. Once you reach the entry for the publication of interest, click on “View Important Publication Details” in the upper-right-hand corner of the screen.
Citing the online Records
Full and accurate citations are necessary in order to properly identify the documents and other materials used in preparing books, articles, legal briefs, and other documentary-based works. Citing online resources presents unique challenges. The following guidance applies to the online Department of State records.
In general, the first citation to documents from a series of records should include the full series title and other archival details about the records (record group number, entry number, etc.). Subsequent notes to the same series can be in the form of short-hand references, but should still include the key information. A good citation to the records must include several elements.
- Originating office (“From”). The place where the document originated. This might be the Department of State, an office within the Department, a Foreign Service Post, another agency, or an individual.
- Addressee (“To”). The destination of the communication. Similarly, this might be the Department of State, a Foreign Service Post, another agency, or an individual.
- Type of document and document number. In most cases instructions, despatches, notes to, and notes from are numbered. Because there can be more than one of each type of document on the same day, especially for despatches, including the number identifies the specific document.
- Date of document.
- Series title. Examples include “Despatches from U.S. Ministers to Great Britain,” “Notes to Foreign Consuls,” and “Miscellaneous Letters.”
- Record group number and title.
- Repository (i.e. “U.S. National Archives”).
- URL. Documents should never be cited using only the URL. While not useful for identifying the records, the citation can include a note in brackets containing the date on which the records were retrieved online.
Example (long form): U.S. Legation Great Britain to Department of State, Despatch 1166, March 8, 1866, Despatches from Great Britain, RG 59: General Records of the Department of State, U.S. National Archives. https://catalog.archives.gov/id/188543169 (accessed January 19, 2021).
Example (short form): Great Britain to Department of State, Despatch 1166, March 8, 1866, Despatches from Great Britain, RG 59, USNA. https://catalog.archives.gov/id/188543169 (accessed January 19, 2021).
The Department of State central files from the years between 1789 and 1906, are divided into three main categories, each of which is arranged in multiple series as follows. The series of records listed in green have been uploaded into the Catalog and are described herein; those in red are forthcoming.
I. Diplomatic Correspondence
- Diplomatic Instructions
- Notes to Foreign Missions
- Notes from Foreign Missions
II. Consular Correspondence
- Consular Instructions
- Notes to Foreign Consuls
- Notes from Foreign Consuls
III. Miscellaneous Correspondence
- Domestic Letters (Letters Sent)
- Miscellaneous Letters (Letters Received)
DESPATCHES, 1789-1906. RG 59 Entry A1-13 (NAID 603720). These records consist of the despatches (reports), with related enclosures, sent to the Department of State by American diplomats overseas. They are often referred to as the “Diplomatic Despatches” to differentiate them from the despatches sent by consular officers. They are arranged by name of country and thereunder chronologically, except in cases where a U.S. diplomatic officer was accredited to more than one government, in which cases the despatches from several countries were bound together. The despatches relate to all phases of U.S. diplomatic relations with foreign countries and to the administration of U.S. legations and embassies. These records cover subjects such as the negotiation of treaties; political and economic issues between the U.S. and the host country; boundary matters; claims matters; fishing rights; trade and trade relations; protections of U.S. citizens abroad and foreigners in the U.S.; international conferences, commissions, and expositions; extraditions of fugitives; and the internal political, economic, and social conditions of the host country. The despatches also cover administrative matters such as appointments to positions; arrival and departure of staff; and official expenses. Among the enclosures are newspaper clippings, copies of notes to and from the countries’ foreign offices, copies of death notices and marriage certificates, publications, and ceremonial letters.
|German States & Germany||1799-1801, 1835-1906, 1799-1906||M44|
|Paraguay & Uruguay||1858-1906||M128|
|Sweden & Norway||1813-1906||M45|
NOTES FROM FOREIGN MISSIONS, 1789-1906. RG 59 Entry A1-28 (NAID 594363). Original communications and related enclosures received by the Department of State from foreign legations and embassies in the United States. The records relate to all aspects of American diplomatic relations with those countries. Enclosures include printed material and ceremonial letters from heads of foreign states.
|German States & Germany||1817-1906||M58|
|Kingdom of the Two Sicilies||1826-1860||M55|
A series of records separate from, but very closely related to, the NOTES FROM FOREIGN MISSIONS, is:MISCELLANEOUS NOTES FROM OTHER STATES, 1817‑1906. RG 59 Entry A1-29 (NAID 820133). The records consists of communications from states, territories, or regimes that did not have a recognized diplomatic presence in the United States. Included are notes from representatives of:
♦Orange Free State
♦Saint Croix Island
♦South African Republic
More information about these records is in the Microfilm Catalog under T953. This series is in the Catalog under NAID 183303966.
NOTES TO FOREIGN CONSULS, 1853-1906. RG 59 Entry A1-96 (NAID 1076611). The records consist of copies of communications sent by the Department of State to foreign consular officers in the United States. Those communications relate to many phases of their consular duties. They are arranged in one large chronological file. Notes sent before 1853 are found in the Domestic Letters (see below) and the Notes to Foreign Legations and Embassies. More information about these records is in the Microfilm Catalog under M663. This series is in the Catalog under NAID 1076611.
MISCELLEANEOUS LETTERS (LETTERS RECEIVED), 1789-1906. RG 59 Entry A1-113 (NAID 583574). Arranged chronologically. The records consist of letters, with related enclosures, received by the Department of State from sources other than U.S. and foreign diplomatic and consular officers. That includes the President, heads of other U.S. Government agencies, members of Congress, governors of states and territories, other state and territorial officers, and the public. These records cover a wide range of subjects relating to both domestic and international affairs. Many of the letters relate solely to the domestic duties of the Department, such as the administration of the Territories, the printing and distribution of the laws, the registration of copyrights, the taking of the census, and the publication of the Biennial Register. Many letters concerning patent applications and immigration originally part of this series were transferred, along with those functions, to other Government agencies. The answers to these letters are found in the DOMESTIC LETTERS (see below). More information about these records is in the Microfilm Catalog under M179. This series is in the catalog under NAID 152775387.
Also available online through the Catalog, but not as part of this project, is the following series of records from the Miscellaneous Correspondence.
DOMESTIC LETTERS (LETTERS SENT), 1784‑1906. RG 59 Entry A1-100 (NAID 568025). Arranged chronologically. This series consists principally of copies of letters sent by the Department of State to persons other than U.S. and foreign diplomatic and consular officers. That includes the President, heads of other U.S. Government agencies, members of Congress, governors of states and territories, other state and territorial officers, and the public. There are some letters, principally for the years 1789‑1828, to U.S. and foreign diplomatic and consular officers. These records cover a wide range of foreign and domestic subjects. Many of the letters relate solely to such domestic duties of the Department as the administration of the Territories, the printing and distribution of the laws, the registration of copyrights, the taking of the census, and the publication of the Biennial Register. Other letters concern foreign affairs. The domestic letters for 1799‑1802 are missing. More information about these records is in the Microfilm Catalog under M40. This series is in the catalog under NAID 568025.