Visiting the National Archives in St. Louis

Here in St. Louis, we are lucky to have a branch of the National Archives, the National  Personnel Records Center (NPRC). This massive building houses military personnel records, as well as federal civilian personnel records and Selective Service records.

When I attended the National Genealogical Society’s annual meeting in St. Charles, Missouri, in May, I attended a talk by the NPRC director, Bryan McGraw, who detailed which records were available in St. Louis versus in Washington, D.C. (See this page for details on which documents are in the St. Louis holdings.) Attending that talk made me anxious to visit the St. Louis facility, if I could figure out whether I had ancestors there to research.

Then I was contacted by a friend in another states whose grandfather’s World War II military personnel records were available at the NRPC in St. Louis. She was looking to save the $70 fee to have the records photocopied and mailed to her. I offered to visit the Archival Research Room at the center and look at the records, and photocopy or photograph them for her. It was my chance to see this place in person.

I thought I’d share the experience here, because I thought it was really interesting.

So here are my Things You Should Know About Researching at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis:

  • You need an appointment. A  fire at the Center in 1973 destroyed many records. Some were damaged but not destroyed and those may require examination and conservation treatment by preservation staff. Before I could see these records, they had to be treated. When that was completed, I was notified they were ready and given an appointment to view them.
  • You have to go through security. When entering the Center, there’s a TSA-style x-ray machine for bags and metal detector The big difference is that at the Archives, they seem a bit more strict and attentive than at the airport. And  security officer was much more polite and respectful.
  • You’ll go through orientation. It was probably a half hour before I actually got into the research room because first I had to fill out some paperwork, talk with a helpful staff member, and watch a PowerPoint orientation. Then I was issued a Researcher Identification Card and sent in.
  • You’re limited as to what you can bring into the Research Room. You’re not allowed to bring in your own blank paper for note taking. (Pencils and blank paper are provided.) If you have pre-written paper to which you want to refer, it must be reviewed and stamped “NARA APPROVED.”  No pens or laptop cases. No purses. But they do have locked lockers, so you can store that stuff securely. (I had to go back to my locker to get my reading glasses, and that wasn’t a problem.) You can bring in laptops, cameras, mobile devices and certain scanners. See this Policies and Procedures page for more information.
  • You can take great pictures with your phone. They provide what they call “camera table mounts,” which are clear acrylic stands, like little tables, that straddle the document. You place your phone on top of the stand to elevate the phone and hold it steady so that you can shoot a photo of the document from above (through the stand). The stand made it really easy to take good photos of many of the documents. I used the photocopier for bound documents, so they could lie flat.
  • Security going out is stronger than going in. As a precaution against stealing, once you have paid for your photocopies, they count the documents, put them in a folder, and place them in a locked canvas bag (that’s one in the photo above), along with any papers stamped NARA APPROVED. Once you’ve gathered your things from your locker, you take the locked bag back to security, where it’s unlocked and your documents given you. There’s no way to smuggle anything out.
  • It’s free! Except for the photocopying fee (I think I spent all of $10), there was no charge, not even for parking. There is a little concession area where you can purchase food if you’re there all day.

I enjoyed my experience at the NPRC and hope that I can go back to research my own ancestors!

For information about researching at the National Archives, in Washington, D.C., see this great blog post, 5 Tips for Your First Visit to the National Archives in Washington, D.C., by genealogist D. Joshua Taylor, which details that experience. They seem similar, with some key differences.

Create (or download) genealogy forms with Transpose

I think many genealogists (including me) enjoy forms. We collect data and we like to have a place to put it. I have been playing with a website that allows me to create forms willy nilly and I’m having a great time.

That website is Transpose. It makes it ridiculously easy create forms that you can fill out yourself or share with others via weblink. (So you could create a form to send to cousins, for example, and the answers would form a database in your Transpose account.) You can also publish form templates for others to download and customize for their own use.

I learned about Transpose via Diahan Southard, Your DNA Guide, who mentioned that she used Transpose’s previous incarnation, KustomNote, for creating contact forms that help her organize the many DNA-related contacts she receives.

Since creating my (free) account on Transpose, I have created a bunch of forms, including several genealogy-related templates that I’ve been using regularly.

I’ve made three genealogy templates public:

  • Genealogy conference notes (which was really handy when I was taking notes at the Southern Illinois Genealogical Society’s conference)
  • Genealogy task list (which is wear I’m keeping track of current projects, as I blogged about last week)
  • Genealogy abstract form (which I’m using to capture data as I abstract my ancestors’ Civil War pension files)

Please feel free to download them and customize them for your use. I’m sure I’ll be adding more–they’ll all be tagged Genealogy, so they’ll be easy to find when you browse public templates at Transpose.  All my templates are quite simple, but I feel like I’ve just scratched the surface of the power of Transpose. I look forward to getting into it deeper!

Oh, and of course, Transpose has an iOS app, so I can use it on my iPhone and iPad. (An Android app is in development.)

If you use Transpose and have any public templates, please let me know in the comments!


Keeping my research interesting

Keeping genealogy research interestingSince I heard Josh Taylor speak in early August, I’ve been really trying to keep a laser focus on my short research to-do list in an effort to keep from being distracted. My 30 x 30 challenge helped a lot. Since I didn’t give myself the option of not researching during that time, it was very helpful to just go to the list (which had me either transcribing one ancestor’s Civil War pension file or working on citations for another).

But here’s the thing: When my 30-day challenge was over, I took a little break, because processing those pension files started to feel a little like drudgery. And I was reluctant to go back to it. It made me realize that I need to change up the research from time to time if I’m going to do it on a regular basis.

As I pondered that, I saw the error of my ways. I took Josh Taylor’s advice to have one to three projects on my to-do list. (I had two.) But I skipped the part about also having three to five extended projects (brick walls) that I can dabble in when I need to mix it up.

So here’s what I’m going to do to keep my research interesting and, I hope, to get back to daily research: I’m adding one main project to my list along with five extended projects/problems. That’s my list pictured above.

I have a leisurely weekend ahead, so I’m hoping to enjoy doing some genealogy research. My revamped list will help!

The value of transcribing

The value of transcribing documentsWhen I took Julie Miller‘s class at the NGS conference, Anatomy of a Military Pension, I felt inspired and motivated. I went home that night and ordered the pension files from my three Union soldier ancestors. I took her advice on how to process the files. Starting with the first one that arrived (for my 3d great grandfather, Richard Anderson Jeffries, 1823-1914), I put the papers in the file in chronological order, created citations for each of the 26 documents, scanned the documents into one file and am now in the process of transcribing them.

When Julie told us to transcribe the documents, I remember thinking that sounded like way too much work. I had trouble picturing myself taking the time to do it. But Julie urged us not to skip that step. She said that when we transcribe, we learn things we would learn no other way. So I decided to take her advice. I’m now in the middle of transcribing this pension file. (I’m on document 19 of 26.) It’s what I’ve been doing daily in my 30 x 30 challenge–I find that it takes about 30 minutes to transcribe one document.

I am so glad I’m making effort! Reading and typing the documents word for word means that I’m not just skimming; I’m digesting what the documents say. I’m memorizing important dates and items that appear on every form. (He fought in Co. D, 18th Regiment, Missouri Infantry Volunteers–those words came out of my memory.)

I’ve learned things that I never would have noticed in a simple reading of the file. For example, his first (unfortunately unsuccessful) pension lawyer was a woman. In 1886! It’s also allowed me to really get to know this ancestor. He was a smallish man, 5 feet 8 inches, with dark hair and complexion and blue eyes. I’ve read and internalized in exquisite detail his physical ailments as he’s aged. Each application for an increase in pension is accompanied by a doctor’s report, some of which are quite personal in nature.

The next step, once I’ve finished transcribing, will be abstracting the data and entering it into my Reunion software. The pension file has been really helpful, revealing heretofore unknown-to-me between-census information, like the fact that he lived in the state of Washington for part of the first decade of the 20th century before moving back to Missouri. (Maybe some day I’ll find out how he traveled to and from Washington.)

I have two more ancestors’ files to process–one of them, for G.W. Adams, 1845-1938,  has over 100 individual documents (as opposed to the 26 of R.A. Jeffries). It’s going to take me awhile. But, as I know already, there is gold to mine from these amazing pieces of history. And I know that going to the trouble to transcribe will help me mine it even better.