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.

Third edition of Evidence Explained is available!

New edition of Evidence Explained is out!The newest edition of Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace, by Elizabeth Shown Mills, has just been released. I ordered mine from Amazon last month and it arrived last week. Very exciting!

Evidence Explained is the gold standard for source citation. This new volume is a hefty 892 pages. It’s hardcover. And heavy. (And also available in an electronic edition.) But it contains within its covers the answers to knotty problems of how to cite a source. This edition includes updated information citing genetic sources as well as sources from the Internet.

Over the last few years that I’ve been doing more serious genealogy research on my family it has become very clear that citing and analyzing sources is the key to doing accurate, reliable research that holds up over time. Great source citation also helps other genealogy researchers who may want to use the data I’ve gathered because they can tell it’s reliable and find it themselves if they want. It may feel like extra work to create a proper source citation, but it’s the kind of thing that can pay dividends in the future. The hefty source I created for my ancestor’s Civil War pension records will allow me or any researcher to be able to find the source again. And its validity is apparent by the citation.

If you’re serious about your genealogy research and don’t have Evidence Explained on your bookshelf, the publication of this third edition might be just the reason to invest $54 to have it at your fingertips. If you already have the second edition, you can trade it in at Amazon for $29.74 credit and use it toward the third edition! (Thank you to Thomas MacEntee of Geneabloggers for this tip.)

I haven’t had a chance to use the third edition since it arrived last week, but as soon as I get a break from clients, I’m going to read Chapters 1 and 2 on basic principles and plan to consult the work frequently when I’m creating source citations.

Going beyond online resources

Going beyond online resources

The National Personnel Records Center

Like many beginning genealogy researchers, my first inclination is to go online to look for a fact or find a resource. If I don’t find what I’m looking for, more often than not I move on to the next thing to research online. But as I’m listening to veteran genealogists share their knowledge and expertise at the National Genealogical Society’s annual conference, I’m learning that online resources are, of course, just the tip of the iceberg.

The first break-out session I attended was “But I’ve Looked Everywhere,” presented by Barbara Vines Little, CG, FNGS, FVGS. It was a tremendous session and a great way for me to kick off the conference. She went over an amazing array of resources where you might find the information you’re looking for. And guess what? Many of those resources aren’t easily available online.

After two days (so far) of the conference, I’ve come to realize that I need (and want) to get out of the house and explore the amazing repositories of information available in my own community. I’m fortunate to live where there are not one, but two, large public library headquarters (St. Louis City and County), both of which have genealogy departments. There is also the Missouri History Museum Library as well as the National Personnel Records Center of the  National Archives at St. Louis (the largest federal archive outside of Washington, D.C.). Also, the Missouri State Archives is just a couple of hours away in Jefferson City. They provide a great deal of information online through Missouri Digital Heritage, but I learned at the conference that there is much more information available that is not digitized. There is much for me to discover by researching in person.

One thing I’ve learned when I have gone out of town to research at various libraries is that it’s easy for me to get overwhelmed and not take full advantage of what the repository has to offer. That’s because, I think, I’ve gone in thinking that I wanted to cast a wide net and learn as much as possible. Now I’m thinking I’m better off with a single focus, particularly if I’m using these local libraries where I can return again and again without effort.

In her talk, Barbara Vines Little said something that keeps echoing in my brain:

“You have to know what the question is before you can look for the answer.”

 –Barbara Vines Little

I need to go into to these libraries and archives with a very specific question in mind. That will help me stay focused and help me use my time well. I’m excited to figure out those specific questions and get started!

Don’t forget your conference notes!

arcnotebookcameraYesterday I was flying home from an organizers’ conference and decided to take a few minutes to read through the notes contained in the notebook I take to meetings. (In case you’re an office-supply junkie like me, I’ll tell you that I use the Arc disc notebook from Staples–that’s it in the picture–which has repositionable pages that allow me to easily organize my notes in sections.)

As I read through the genealogy section, I became reacquainted with the notes I took from the wonderful sessions I attended at RootsTech 2015. Honestly, some of those sessions had completely slipped my mind as I re-entered real life after the conference. So I put a note on my task list to try out some of the resources in my next genealogy research session. (I’m particularly excited by trying out what I learned in the excellent session called Map My Ancestors, presented by A.C. Ivory.)

I see now that there is a bullet item missing from the list I created when I wrote the blog post Digging out after a conference. I need to add, Review session notes to the list of things I do at home after a conference. It doesn’t matter whether I took regular handwritten notes, used my Livescribe pen, or typed them directly into my iPad or laptop. If I don’t review the notes I’m going to miss out on some of what I learned, because I certainly can’t keep all of it in my head.

My crazy travel schedule this month has precluded my doing any genealogy research so far in April. But I intend to do some on Sunday. And the first place I’m going to look when I start my session is in my conference notebook. I can’t wait!