Researchers, genealogists and the plain curious can now use the Internet to check more than 50 million historical records at the National Archives, from Civil War battles to family immigration files. Before the system became available, people had to either visit the Archives and spend hours combing through documents or request the files by phone and pay to have them mailed.
“Now, people can pull these electronic records at their own convenience,” said Michael Carlson, electronic and special media records director for the archives. “It’s totally self-service from your desktop.”
The records available on the database system represent a small fraction of the archive’s electronic holdings. They were selected because of their analytical and statistical nature — most deal with information that easily can be looked up based on specific names, dates, organizations, cities or states.
For instance, someone wanting to research a great-grandfather who immigrated to the United States during the Irish potato famine in the mid-19th century can choose the series of records listed under “immigrants,” enter the relative’s name and learn on what ship he traveled, the occupation he claimed prior to leaving, the date he arrived in New York, and the country from which he left, among other details.
“It can be another stop in creating your family tree and understanding what happened and when,” said Michael Kurtz, assistant archivist for records services.
POW records available
Carlson said he expects the service will be popular with veterans in particular because of all the information related to military action, casualties and POWs.
The records in the new system “aren’t a revelation in information, but is it helpful? Absolutely,” said American Legion spokesman John Peterson after checking out the Web site.
“A lot of people active with the POW/MIA issue complain the government doesn’t release enough documents about people who are still missing, so almost anything they give out is good in our eyes,” he said.
Kristine Minami, a spokeswoman for the Japanese American Citizens League, said getting easy access to government records will provide “a lot of validation” to Japanese Americans who were sent to internment camps during World War II.
The database draws from the records of 20 federal agencies. Most of the information was created by the agencies to suit their own program needs, without any thought to its historical significance.
Because of that, some records have typographical errors like misspelled names or an inaccurate dates. National Archives officials did not correct any of the information to preserve the records’ integrity.
Shirley Langdon Wilcox, former president of the National Genealogical Society, called the new system an “extremely useful and exciting” tool.
“This certainly gives you enough of an idea of what might be available to you so you know what to weed out before taking a trip somewhere,” she said. “Anytime you have a tool that can make yourself better prepared before you go to the Archives or library, it’s worthwhile. You don’t end up wasting an hour or two looking at whether they have something, because you’ve done your homework.”