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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