NARA’s Online Public Access: A First Look

NARA's Online Public Access
NARA's Online Public Access(Click to Enlarge Image)

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), is in the process of striving to make the records they hold, and their documents describing them, more accessible to researchers.

A key part of this access project is a new search, which is called “Online Public Access,” and was announced (as a prototype), on 28 December 2010 on NARA’s NARAtions blog.

About Online Public Access — which is available at — NARA notes:

“The Online Public Access prototype includes:

  • “Access to information about our records that is currently in the Archival Research Catalog (ARC) and on, and selected electronic records from Access to Archival Databases (AAD) and the Electronic Records Archives (ERA) – all through one search!
  • “Search Refinements and Topic Clusters to limit your results in a variety of ways, such as by date or location, or focus on a topic of interest”.
NARA Open Public Access Search: Civil War
NARA Open Public Access Search: Civil War (Click to Enlarge Image)

On the homepage for the OPA, NARA writes:

“The Online Public Access prototype is our first step to providing a single search to our records from several of our current systems, including the Archival Research Catalog (ARC)Access to Archival Databases (AAD), and the Electronic Records Archive (ERA). As part of the National Archives’ flagship initiative in our Open Government Plan, our new search is intended to make the permanent records of the federal government easier to find online. We want to get your input as we continue to develop this search portal. Contact us at, and let us know what you think!”

I tried a couple of searches, to evaluate the results at this state of the NARA prototype. Entering the search term “Civil War” (without quotation marks for the purposes of the search), yields “28454 results.

(It would be handy if the page rendering placed commas in the customary locations for longer numbers, to increase the readability.)

Over 28,000 results might seem overwhelming, but NARA has organized them.

First, on the left is an expandable hierarchical list of topic clusters:

Top 15 Clusters
Archival (9)

Archival Descriptions (6)

Image (3)
Records of the Provost Marshal General’s Bureau (2)
Other Topics (1)

Electronic Telegrams (3)

Authority Records (3)
Discovering The Civil War (2)
Other Topics (1)

This is followed by refinements by data source (, Archival Descriptions, Archival Descriptions with Digital Objects, Authority Records (in other words, record relating to NARA’s authorization to manage particular records classes), and Selected Archival Records).

There is then a refinement available by Level of Description (Collection, File, Item, Record Group, and Series). Refinements are also available based on date ranges, file format, and location within the NARA facilities.

So, let’s say I wanted to find descriptions of records groups about the Civil War. I could perform this search, then select the date range “1860-1869,” followed by “Data Source: Archival Descriptions.” Doing this, narrows down the field to consider from 28,000+ records to two records:

  • “Records of the Provost Marshal General’s Bureau (Civil War), 1861-1965”
  • “Records of Civil War Special Agencies of the Treasury Department, 1861-1868”

This may be too narrow, and I may need to refine my search. I can refine the search on that page, or perform an “Advanced Search” using the link that is available right there.

A good quick introduction exists in the form of a YouTube video. Additionally, a guideline for using the search is available at However, if you have a search that yields no results, you get a help page, which links to an invalid URL at

It’s a prototype site, let’s not forget. As such, there are some rough edges, but overall, this is a promising and exciting development.

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