Beginner’s Guide to Research at Archives II

If you’re reading this, you’re probably quite excited at the prospect of research at what is likely the greatest archival repository in the country, and one of the best in the world, but somewhat bewildered about what the experience will be like. Here is a basic guide.

Archives II, or The Deuce, as I call it, has most of the post-WWII documents and record collections. It is in College Park, on land adjacent to the University of Maryland. It is big and sprawling in many ways and has always been a rewarding but difficult research experience.

GETTING THERE

The easiest way to get to The Deuce would seem to be to drive if you have your own car, but parking spaces can be in short supply. NARA recommends you use public transportation, but if you’ve got to drive, come into the entrance off of Adelphi Road (not Metzerott). A fairly easy way for those staying in DC is to take a NARA shuttle bus from Archives I, which departs on the hour from the east side of the building and puts you at the visitors entrance to The Deuce. No ID is required to get on the shuttle and it takes 35-45 minutes to get out to The Deuce, depending on traffic. Finally, there’s the Metro. You can take the C8 Metrobus from the College Park Metro train station. Beware, buses only take cash and the Metro SmarTrip card (a plastic electronic pass card recharged by your bank account), not the basic fare card (paper with a magnetic strip) that the train stations use (along with the SmarTrip).

RESEARCH MATERIALS

It’s probably best to travel light. It’s difficult to bring any paper into the archives and you have to have every page inspected by staff. Really all I ever see being brought in are laptops, cameras, and scanners. Your best bet in my mind is to have all your notes on Record Groups in a digital form (like a Word file) or to have them condensed simply onto a limited number of pages. There are plenty of public machines with web access available in the research rooms.

You can scan or take photos with permission, which is usually easily granted by staff in the textual research room (unless the words “confidential” or “classified” appear on your box or folder, which means a much more thorough review). The textual research room (paper documents) is a pretty good place for this because it is a large room with a window wall, so there is a lot of diffuse light to illuminate your documents. Sometime there is a bit of direct light that can throw off your exposures if you are using a camera. Many people use small tripods, I generally shoot handheld with a fairly high ISO (200-400). I recommend you familiarize yourself with some of the controls on your camera beyond just the “AUTO” mode, like how to use your aperture priority, shutter priority, or fully manual modes. Don’t worry, they’re pretty easy. Each research station has a lamp and two three-prong outlets, and there are four spots at each table, so there will be plenty of light and power for your gadgets.

There are photocopiers in the Textual Research room and both scanners and photo copy stands in the Still Image Research room. There is a wide range of fees, but the main ones are $.50 per self-service paper photocopy page, or $8.00 per self service high quality scan of photographs.

FINDING WHAT YOU NEED

This is going to be one of the tougher parts. First, make sure you have done some searches in ARC and you have that information either in a Word file on your laptop or on very innocuous paper so you can get it into the research room. And make sure what you want is at Archives II, not Archives I. However, this is only a small first step. Once you get into the big Textual Research Room, there is a room where finding aids are, along with a couple archivists on duty. The problem is, most of the finding aids seem to suck. And they are out of date. And they are paper so it is very hard to change them and impossible to access them remotely. So you will find the finding aid for your Record Group, flip through it, and sort of find what you want. Maybe. You will probably have to ask the archivists a time or two to figure out what you want. If you are unlucky, the archivist(s) will say, that’s really not my area of expertise and you had better come back (this afternoon/tomorrow/the next day) when (somebody else) is on duty. If you are lucky, you will find what you are looking for in the main finding aid. However, these can be up to 50 or so years old, so the collections may have been reorganized or had parts removed. So then you go to the Hierarchical Finding Aid, a neater, slimmer, but less detailed set of finding aids in the same room. These are pretty recent and include the specific location information you need to fill out a call slip, and have info that corresponds to the electronic database the archivists have access to. If you are using a single RG a lot, you will eventually just go to the Hierarchical Finding Aid first because you don’t need an explanation of the entry.

Once you fill out a call slip, you have an archivist check it and it goes into the pile for the daily calls. THIS IS KEY. Documents are not retrieved on a continuous basis as in most other, smaller archives. only about 4 or 5 times a day does staff go pull something — 10am, 11am, 1:30pm, 2:30pm, and sometimes 3:30pm. It typically takes up to an hour for your documents to arrive at the circulation counter of the Textual Research Room, so you should be aware that you could be on the premises for 2 hours (potentially even more) before you get to see a single document. You can call up to 2 carts worth of stuff, which could consist of about 24-30 regular archival boxes, but could also consist of only a handful of large or irregular-sized boxes, so it really pays to think ahead about your workflow. I always make it a point to have more stuff called up than I think I can look at in a day because I don’t want to get caught finishing looking at my documents at 2:45pm and not being able to call up or see anything else before 11am the next day. This can mean that your trip to The Deuce will be very stressful and annoying and I don’t see how anyone could possibly come for less than a week and get anything done because there are so many time gaps.

TEXTUAL RESEARCH

This is what it sounds like — the main reading room for paper documents. It is a large, open room facing onto the hemicycle glass wall, so it is quite well lit and a fairly uplifting place to do research. However, the logistics of submitting slips and getting your cart can be somewhat trying, as a large number of researchers congregate in these two places — circulation and finding aids. The only strategy really is to be patient. You are not going to get anything done quickly here.

STILL IMAGES

This is really a treasure of a resource — basically all of the photographic collections or items have been sorted out of the paper/textual collections. This is a much less-used area, but its collections are quite useful and easy to access. If you are interested in the visual culture of the federal government, this is the place to go. Archivists are much freer to spend time with individual researchers and materials are usually ready about 15 minutes after call time, if not sooner. In addition, there are a few very good copy stands with lights, so all you need to do is screw in your camera on high quality settings and you can make publication-quality images. There are also high quality Kodak scanners and mid-quality photocopiers (to make reference images) available to use for a fee. The rhyme and reason to the finding aids seem to be less apparent than those of the textual research room, but since the archivists are more available, they can give you a lot of help in deciphering the aids and finding images.

SUSTENANCE

The Deuce has a pretty good cafeteria that is open most of the day (breakfast to late lunch), as well as a little convenience store. Both of these only take cash. There is a SunTrust ATM on the premises, but be aware that it does not support or connect to all nationwide networks for debit/ATM cards. Your best bet is to bring cash. You can bring your own food into the cafeteria dining room and there are pop machines and a microwave for those who bring their own food or just want a soda. What I typically do is arrive at Archives II, talk to the archivists and submit call slips first thing, then head down to the cafeteria to get the day’s meal so I can eat leisurely and don’t have to leave my documents later. Unlike many other high quality archival repositories, there are no other food sources nearby. You would have to get in your car for a fairly lengthy drive and if you’re thinking about walking or biking, forget about it. You’re stuck at The Deuce until you’re done for the day.

RESTROOMS

These are all high quality and very clean.

HOURS

Monday, Tuesday, and Saturday, 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.

Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, 9:00 a.m. – 9:00 p.m.

The last call time for Wed, Thu, and Fri, is 3:30 p.m., so if you want to stay late, get your slip in by then. However, the shuttle to Archives I has a last run of 5 p.m.