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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 [email protected], 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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