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reflect in general the basic work processes of a library, included divisions of accessioning, classification, cataloging, research, and publications, as well as custodial units to which the accessioned records were assigned. Finding aids, which were intended to be used by the staff as well as by government officials and researchers in identifying and locating desired records and information, were to include identification inventories to facilitate transfer of legal custody in accessioning, descriptive inventories of holdings by custodial units, cross-sectional studies of holdings across custodial units, a comprehensive central catalog to assist in locating specific subject information among the total holdings, guides, lists, calendars, and indexes.
Basic to this entire program, however, was to be the creation by the Division of Classification of a logical and comprehensive plan embracing all record series and a numbering system that would positively identify each series within that system. Although finding aids were to be based upon and reflect this classification plan, from the outset no agreement could be reached on its nature and form. Until such a plan could be developed the Division of Cataloging began cataloging each accession as a separate entity.
Since the way that archives are organized and described has a direct impact on their use and users, the proper classification of archives had been discussed by historians as early as 1899, at which time the American Historical Association had created a Public Archives Commission. The problem of archival classification achieved international prominence in 1910 with the Brussels International Congress of Archivists and Librarians, which formally endorsed the principle of provenance; i.e., identifying and maintaining archives by office of origin. During the next three decades, however, a number of American state archives developed their own classification
plans and catalogs without reference to provenance. American practices and opinions on archival classification varied widely and quickly became one of the major issues confronting the Society of American Archivists, which was organized in 1936, 2 years after the establishment of the National Archives.
On one side in this controversy were those who regarded institutional archives, whether of public or private origin, as simply historical manuscripts, and who, drawing upon library classification theory, advocated the physical rearrangement of individual documents and files in chronological or alphabetical order, in combination with subject or geographical classification, or various combinations thereof. Such rearrangement, it was maintained, was necessary to best reveal and facilitate use of the subject content of documents.
Opposing this group were those who defended the principle of provenance. According to their view the classification and reorganization of records according to any preconceived classification plan would compromise the legal basis, the official character, and the integrity of the records. Furthermore, such a classification and reorganization would interfere with their use by agency officials and would possibly destroy the research value and significance of their content by removing them from their organizational and functional context. What they advocated was a classification plan based upon provenance and the original order of the records. Proponents of this view maintained-and still maintain that to fully understand and effectively use government records, one must first understand the administrative history of the agency and the function or activity that resulted in the creation or receipt and agency use of the records involved. This knowledge would also enable the researcher more readily to locate records likely to contain information on any partic
ular subject. The only general agreement between participants in this controversy was that archival classification was not identical with library classification, and, by extension, that archival description was not identical with library cataloging.
In the hope of profiting from experience, studies were made of various European archives, but that experience was found to be not particularly relevant because of the wide variety of filing systems, decentralized files, and frequent administrative reorganizations that characterized the U.S. government. The creation of a formal organizational classification was then attempted, based on detailed research in administrative history. After 6 years, however, the Division of Classification had produced not an overall classification plan but only individual plans for the records of less than half-a-dozen agencies, most of them temporary World War I agencies. The result was that the other National Archives divisions had fallen far behind in the preparation of any type of finding aids. A staff committee was appointed to study the problem, and, in adopting its recommendations, the Archivist in 1941 ended the preparation of classification plans and cataloging by accessions.
According to the committee report, National Archives experience had amply demonstrated that the organization of the government had been too fluid to account for all organizational units and record series, past and present; that the volume of records to be analyzed in detail in terms of organizational and functional relationships was too great; that the decentralizing of records had resulted in a wide variety of filing (classification) systems, and that older materials were frequently too disorganized to permit the detailed studies necessary to determine their precise place in a general classification plan. Instead, a series of records groups was to be established based upon the principle of provenance. All accessioned records and future accessions
were to be assigned to these registered record groups, with new groups established in serial order when necessary. Under the new program the custodial divisions were to describe the record groups in their custody in record group registration statements; preliminary check lists; preliminary and, eventually, final inventories, and other types of finding aids as needed. Provision was also made for a card catalog of record groups based upon the registration statements.
During these experimental years the major successful finding aid activity was the preparation, by the publications office, of two overall descriptions of records accessioned by the National Archives. The first, published in 1937, provided a collective description of the approximately 250,000 linear feet of records – the equivalent of some 562 million single-page documents that had been accessioned by mid-1937. The unit of entry and description in this first guide was the individual accession. A lengthy collective title was devised for each accession, which usually included the name of the transferring office, enumerated the major forms and types of records - correspondence, transcripts, etc. - and gave the approximate inclusive dates of the records, the approximate volume in running feet of shelf space occupied, and the accession number. This was followed by a very brief administrative history of the agency, a somewhat longer but still collective description of the records, a summary of the agency functions they documented and some general indications of their subject content, and a list of published and unpublished finding aids, including those created by the transferring agency.
This initial guide was superseded in 1940 by a one-volume Guide to the Material in the National Archives, which provided a more detailed collective description of the records accessioned by the end of 1939. The 1940 Guide repeated the general pattern of
the 1937 Guide, although individual accessions were frequently grouped and described collectively by provenance; i.e., several separate accessions of records from various offices of the Department of Commerce were described in a single entry for that department. More extensive description was provided of individual series and more bibliographical data was provided, with the result that the 1940 Guide, which described only some 30 percent more records than the 1937 Guide, was nearly nine times as long.
The record holdings of the National Archives more than doubled during World War II, and in 1946 a summary guide, intended ostensibly for the general public, was published with the title Your Government's Records in the National Archives. Its descriptions of records were too brief to be of real value to the historical researcher, but it contained very useful administrative histories that summarized agency functions. During the next several years, total holdings increased from more than 700,000 to more than 900,000 cubic feet of records (a more accurate measure of volume than linear feet for accessions), and in 1950 a revised version of the 1946 summary guide was published that incorporated these additional records.
To better meet the needs of the scholarly researcher, the National Archives published in 1948 a Guide to Records in the National Archives which provided an overall description of the 813,000 cubic feet of records (the equivalent of about 1,830 million single-page documents) that had been accessioned by mid-1947. The 1940 Guide had required about 500 pages to collectively describe some 320,000 cubic feet of records; the 1948 Guide contained only about 80 more pages but described about 813,000 cubic feet of records. Almost all of this compression was achieved by reducing the amount of detail, particularly in description of the records.
The 1948 Guide was distinctive in a number of respects. The basic units of entry were the new record groups, which were entered in numerical order; i.e., the order in which they were created. Since the records of major departments, such as State and Treasury, had been divided into a number of record groups for major administrative units because of their volume and complexity, the records of such a department were scattered throughout the Guide. The title line for each record group consisted only of the record group number and title, normally the name of an agency or one of its major administrative units. Following an administrative history of the agency, with bibliographical references, the contents of the record group were listed in no discernable pattern except that general records and files preceded other types of records. Inclusive dates and volume were given for some series but not for others. Finally, the administrative histories occupied from 40 to 90 percent of each record group entry. To the Guide were added a number of appendixes, the fourth of which was a "classified list” of record groups. This list divided the record groups between the three branches of government and listed them in alphabetical order by agency name - under the appropriate branch.
Thus, during the 11 years between 1937 and 1948 the National Archives had published five general guides to its total holdings, three of them specifically intended to meet the needs of scholarly researchers. The next general guide was not published until 1974, after a lapse of some 26 years. During this period the reorganized finding aid program, except for the card catalog, had been initiated and partially implemented. Most of the effort was still directed to preparing finding aids to assist the research scholar, particularly through inventories, which collectively described records at the series level, and special lists, which frequently described records at the file unit or document level, especially audiovisual records. To supplement these finding aids a number of subject or topic guides were published, including guides to Civil War and World War II records. Equally significant, however, was the publication on microfilm of records of particular value for genealogical research and family history, of catalogs for these publications, and especially of general guides to records of genealogical value. During these years the genealogist had emerged as a major user of government archives - for particular records, the primary user.
The planning for the 1974 Guide was based upon a review of this finding aid program and experience, particularly experience with the 1948 Guide. There was still general agreement on directing the new guide to the perceived needs of the research scholar, especially the historian and the graduate history student. There was less agreement on the scope of the new guide. During the previous three decades a network of Presidential libraries and of federal records centers with regional archival branches had developed as part of the then National Archives and Records Service (NARS) of the General Services Administration; the regional archives branches held federal records that originated outside Washington, while the Presidential libraries held not only the personal papers of recent Presidents and their associates, but also closely related federal records, such as those of Presidential boards, committees, and commissions. After consideration of a wide range of options, it was decided to restrict the guide to accessioned records of the U.S. government - designed in law as "The National Archives of the United States” – regardless of the repository in the NARS system in which the records were located. Presidential papers and other materials donated to Presidential libraries are thus not included.
A second problem concerned the organi
zation of the guide. The organization of the 1948 Guide – in serial order by record group number — had resulted in a number of criticisms by reviewers; one research scholar characterized it as a “national misfortune." After considering a variety of options, it was decided to have the organization of the guide reflect the organization and history of the government itself. Such an organization assumes that the user has some familiarity with the history and structure of the government, or will at least consult the table of contents for a general orientation. The new organization was regarded as more user-oriented than the 1948 one based on record group number, which reflected the internal operational needs of staff archivists rather than perceived needs of users. With the three branches of government as the basic framework, the guide describes first the records of the original national government, the Articles of Confederation; the general records of the federal government (i.e., the Constitution and its amendments, the laws and treaties); then the records of the legislative and judicial branches of the government, with the records of current agencies followed by the records of discontinued agencies to whose functions and records current agencies had not succeeded. Under the executive branch, the records of Presidential agencies are followed by those of Cabinet-level agencies in the order in which they were created, then by the records of current independent agencies. In each of these categories the records of current agencies are generally followed by those of discontinued agencies. The final two sections of the guide describe, respectively, accessioned records of, or relating to other governments, and gift collections, chiefly of audiovisual materials.
Since institutions, especially governments, tend over time to move from relative organizational simplicity to ever-greater size and complexity, the above-described
organization of the guide, based upon the structure of the government at the time of publication, was able to encompass all accessioned records of all agencies, past and present. Although it was acknowledged that the guide would be out of date even before it would be published, it was felt that necessary revision and updating could be accomplished with a minimum of difficulty while preserving the overall organization. To further aid in general orientation, the introduction to the guide is followed by a graphic presentation of the inclusive dates of record groups - the “time line” for each record group is given on a chart covering the period 1790-1970. The appendixes include a list of record groups by record group number, with the page number to the guide proper, and in the lengthy index the titles of record groups that constituted agency names are printed in bold capital letters.
In some 880 pages, the guide describes nearly 1 million cubic feet of records, including about 1.5 million maps and charts; some 201,000 accessioned rolls of microfilm of agency records; nearly seven million photographs, including 2.4 million aerial photographs; and approximately 66,500 sound recordings. These holdings as of mid-1970 did not include a sufficient number of machine-readable (electronic) records to justify a separate tabulation. The initial plan was to revise, update and republish the guide at regular - from 4 to 8 years-intervals, but a succession of budget cuts prevented implementation of these plans.
While the guide was still being compiled, automated techniques were being introduced to facilitate the establishment of administrative or physical and intellectual control over NARS' holdings. The first experiments involved the use of selective permuted indexing (SPINDEX) at the file unit or folder level and for the preparation of indexes to finding aids, and for the preparation of indexes to the contents of the
records of the Continental Congresses. The next step was the development of a system (NARS-A1) involving a computer-assisted procedure for compiling all series-level inventories into a master file. This system was intended to improve administrative control over the holdings and to replace the many variations that had developed in describing series with a machine-readable file featuring a standardized format and a hierarchical addressing system that would preserve the organizational content of the records. Because of costs, no effort was made to design a system for information retrieval by subject. Such a system would have required new descriptions of all records after subject terms had been agreed upon, and the decision was made to develop instead a computer assisted program for text editing, a process now widely referred to as word processing. Since the system was to be computer assisted rather than computer centered, it employed batch processing rather than an on-line mode of operation. Other features of the system included fixed record lengths and fixed fields for descriptive information.
From the outset the system was handicapped with problems of obtaining computer services and with having to use systems analysts who had to design a system reflecting the capabilities of available equipment rather than agency needs. The overall cost of the system was relatively high when finally implemented. To have attempted to create a fully automated system with on-line retrieval by subject index terms would have been prohibitively expensive, and although this option is now more attractive because of the great advances that have been made in computer hardware and software during the past decade, the major obstacles still remain the time, the manpower, and the cost of not only converting existing series descriptions into machinereadable form, but of redescribing the records in terms of specific subject content.