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Tutorial: NARA Public Access Search
11/25/2013
The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), curator of federal government records, has made it easier to find documents that could shed light on your ancestors’ lives: Online Public Access (OPA), NARA’s new catalog, lets you cover in a single search what previously took at least three separate searches. OPA replaces the Archival Research Catalog (ARC), which shut down over the summer, plus it searches all web pages on the NARA and presidential library websites. In addition, it searches the Electronic Records Archives (ERA), which preserves the electronic records of the federal government.

What can you expect to find in OPA? For one, descriptions of federal government records genealogists use, such as censuses, passenger lists and military pension files. But OPA is perhaps most useful for ferreting out more-obscure records created when your forebears dealt with the federal government. For example, if an ancestor was a fugitive slave, a recognized member of a Native American tribe, an inmate in a federal penitentiary or a party to a lawsuit tried in a federal court, NARA could have the records to prove it. Most listings in OPA just describe the records, but sometimes you can view images of original documents. If the records haven’t been digitized, you can request copies.

Getting NARA records that pertain to your family may still be challenging. OPA doesn’t index every name listed in most records, limiting its usefulness for genealogists. To find an ancestor in unindexed records, you could look for relevant databases by searching on a term like fugitive slaves, civil case or criminal case, combined with a place name, the name of a federal penitentiary, or another term, and then browse through. Unless you’re already aware of records at NARA that mention your ancestor, this strategy is still a long shot.

NARA’s Search Tips for Family Historians has links to military records and Indian rolls digitized on the NARA site that aren’t searchable by name in OPA. You still can separately search indexes to 19th-century passenger lists, WWII army enlistments and casualties of the Korean and Vietnam Wars in NARA’s Access to Archival Databases (AAD). These two examples show you how to use OPA.

Access Digitized Records
1. OPA records aren’t limited to famous people, but let’s say you heard that your relative Clyde Barrow got on the wrong side of the law. Try a search on the first and last name (Clyde Barrow), and on the name as a phrase with the first name or last name first (“Clyde Barrow” OR “Barrow, Clyde”). You could try the Advanced Search, but its options don’t seem to add usefulness for finding family history records.

2. The search produces 56 results, with the top three matches displayed in each of these categories: digital copies of records, descriptions of records, web pages on Archives.gov, web pages on the Presidential Libraries’ websites, and NARA’s Authority Records (biographies and histories of organizations). There’s a link to view more matches in each category. The first match in the Online Holdings category is the Bonnie and Clyde Criminal Case File. Click on the title or the URL for more details.
 
3. The first of 71 images in the file is displayed. Use the slider to zoom in on an image, and the arrows to navigate around it. Five page thumbnails are displayed at a time. Click on one to view that page, or click on a number to jump to the next set of pages.
 
4. You can download a page as a PDF, or scroll down for an option to download the entire file in PDF format.

Access Offline Records
1. John H. Pennington was involved in international trade, so he might have dealt with the federal government. Try searching on variations of his name as a phrase: “John Hudson Pennington” OR “John H. Pennington” OR “J.H. Pennington”, as well as “Pennington, John Hudson” OR “Pennington, John H.” OR “Pennington, J.H.”

2. Searching on “Pennington, J.H.” produces a match on a record from the State Department. Click on the title or the URL to see more details.

3. The description says the record is not online and directs you to contact NARA to obtain a copy. After sending an e-mail message to NARA with the catalog reference, your contact information and an inquiry regarding how to get a copy of the record, you’ll receive notice that a staff member will respond via letter, fax or e-mail in about two or three weeks.

4. Soon you’ll receive an envelope from NARA with copies of the nine pages in the file for free (in this case). They include J. H. Pennington’s application to be the US representative at a Central American trade show in 1897, along with recommendations from a US Senator and other dignitaries.
 
From the December 2013 Family Tree Magazine
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