6/2/2010: Why Can’t I Find That on the Internet?

June 2, 2010

In the year 2010, people often think that there is little they can’t find on the Internet or through various electronic databases.  In fact, there is so much information available today that often the problem is not how to find it, but how to limit it.  With regard to litigation, most paralegals can come up with a specific historical document if their attorney tells them specifically what they need and if it is available at a County Courthouse or another local source.

But unlike legal research, thorough and professional archival research is the skill of trained historians.  Often, the documents they uncover can mean the difference between winning or losing a case.  When it comes to litigating an access case or any other type of environmental dispute, there are often hundreds of documents out there that are extremely useful for proving your case, but which are only available through archival research.

Electronic resources will never catch up with the volume of historical documentation from America’s 230-year history.  There is, quite simply, too much.  Even if every document ever archived was scanned and available from the convenience of a computer screen, the very nature of archival research simply does not lend itself to being conducted in this way.  Therefore, the deployment of a professional historian to help you discover these documents can provide an efficient means of uncovering these materials.

Archival facilities come in all shapes and sizes.  The National Archives are the largest in the United States and house the federal government’s massive collection of records.  The National Archives maintains numerous branches across the county, with holdings that date back to the colonial era.  The various branches of the National Archives contain holdings relevant to their specific region.  Branches include:

While the National Archives has tried to maintain some consistency with regard to agency record organization, each record group (as a set of agency holdings is called) is unique.  For instance, in contrast to the organization of the Fish and Wildlife Service records (Record Group 22), the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation records (Record Group 115) are almost entirely housed at the regional branch in Denver.  Presumably, the logic is that since the Bureau operates entirely in the western states, researchers interested in this agency would also be located in the West.

Regardless of the record group in question, historians are trained to navigate the maze of records.  Although expert researchers can navigate through most any archival facility or manuscript collection, they often develop expertise in various record groups based on their academic interests or their clients’ needs.

– Jennifer Stevens