So, What Have We Been Doing in Reference?

We are just finishing up performance appraisals at NARA – that annual event where employees and supervisors get together and discuss how the employee has done in the past year to meet his or her “critical elements.”   Critical elements are the duties and responsibilities each one of us has to support NARA’s goals and objectives. As an employee I am always unnerved by the process, even though I have had good supervisors and generally came out of the discussions feeling good about my job and excited about how I can do it better. As a supervisor, the paperwork is a drag but I really love the opportunity to talk to a staff member one on one, to hear what they have been doing, how they feel about where they are in their career, and how together we make improvements both for the employee and NARA.

So why am I bringing this up here? Because I have a pet peeve about the bad rep government employees have and after reviewing the past year with my staff – I want to share with you some of the great work that they have done to improve your access to archival records here in the DC area.

Let’s start with our everyday work:

  • We delivered 406,730 items to over 78,000 researcher visits; 90% of the records were delivered within an hour of the pull time.
  • Our reference staff responded to 41,934 written requests; 84% within 10 working days and 94% within 20.
  • We described 17,290 series of textual records (55,141 cubic feet) in our online catalog (ARC). In addition, we created enhanced descriptions for 313,027 file units at Archives 2.
  • We completed preservation work on 37,000 cubic feet of at-risk textual records.

This past year has also been a time of taking a hard look at our reference processes and developing leaner, more efficient ways of meeting your needs with our limited resources.  Some of our staff were trained and received certificates in Lean Six Sigma process improvement and have used those skills to streamline our processes. Completed projects include improved cycle time of records pulled for researchers at Archives 2, improved response time for written correspondence, and increased access to records by posting existing and new research aids to Archives.Gov. (Be sure and check our researcher web page periodically to see what new research aids have been added.)  We are also working on additional lean projects to improve research consultations and how to better manage the research requests we get via email. Stay tuned!

You might not know about our outreach activities. One of the highlights was the Sixth Annual Genealogy Fair, “The World of Genealogy,” held on April 14th and 15th. This year the fair drew the largest crowd ever- 2500 people! There were 19 guest exhibitors and 26 speaker sessions. The Customer Service staff did a fabulous job pulling this off without a hitch.  The same team also offered 93 Know Your Records programs. These lectures and workshops are offered at both Archives I and Archives II and are designed to help both the novice and expert researcher know more about the records we have and the types of information they contain. Check the website periodically to see what’s coming up.

I will admit that we have plenty of room to improve with both our customer service and our reference work. But with only 6 months experience in this office I can tell you that I am bowled over by the  amount of good work that gets done and by the professionalism and passion of the staff . So, if you have an issue with staff or our service, please let me know. But if you have a good experience with us, please tell us that too.

Susan R. Cummings

Director, Access Programs

6 thoughts on “So, What Have We Been Doing in Reference?

  1. Thank you for the update, Susan! Those that have the privilege of meeting the public in our research rooms have one of the best jobs at NARA—they can see at first-hand why hundreds in the “back room” spend their days processing, preserving, and describing the records. The reference staff literally gets to see history being made.

  2. Mark – you are absolutely right! The research staff get to find cool stuff all the time and to share it in the research rooms or online. I love the proliferation of stories we now have on Narations and other NARA social media sites. Thanks!

  3. I would like to thank your staff for the reference services they provide. Some staff members at Archives 1 have gone out of their way to assist me, such as Emily (room 203) and Dennis. Thanks!

    I am interested in which records have been through preservation this year. Perhaps you could write a blog post on the topic. Were any of them muster rolls?

  4. Angela – thank you so much for your kind words! We do this kind of stuff because we love it but it’s nice to know it is appreciated.

    We do “holdings maintenance” and other preservation actions all the time. I’ll find out about some of the work that got done this year . I love the idea of doing a blog post on preservation. Let me see what we can come up with!

  5. DECEMBER 2010
    Thanks for asking what we have been doing in Conservation Labs at NARA….and giving us a chance to note our staff’s work and accomplishments to ensure that records at the National Archives are preserved and made accessible.
    Since you asked about muster rolls, basic conservation treatment was completed on some of the muster rolls from the War of 1812, New York State RG94 Entry 55A, series PI-17. The muster roll project is an ongoing systematic effort to flatten, folder and box oversize folded muster rolls for improved access and good storage. Muster rolls were traditionally folded many times and have been stored folded since the nineteenth century. The project goal is to make oversize muster rolls safe to handle and use. In previous years we worked on a pilot project with muster rolls from Tennessee, War of 1812, that resulted in ca. 1900 muster rolls flattened, mended, foldered and rehoused. But there are many thousand New York state muster rolls and many other projects that demand attention as well . I will attempt to post here photos before and after mending of two different New York muster roll from the War of 1812 that show folded storage can result in tears along the many folds and mending can make them safe to use.

    In the past year, our bench conservation staff of just under 20 people worked on
    • 33, 906 single sheets of paper or parchment,
    • 812 maps,
    • 2,041 photographs
    • 61 volumes.
    More than half the treatments (18,000 items) were in support of archival processing ( such as more than 13,000 items in RG 466 UD-3 German records from World War II and some RG19 German records of the development of the submarine snorkel). Plus, we prepared 9,847 items for digitization and fabricated 6,000+ custom boxes for records ranging from oversize volumes to polar archives artifacts. So, a total of 50,000+ records had conservation work, digital preparation, or custom housings completed to ensure their preservation and accessibility.
    Some conservation projects last year were
    • to flatten and rehouse 2, 184 Credentials of Senators from RG46 Records of the U.S. Senate,
    • 1,479 records worked on for the Holocaust reformatting project and processing,
    • more than 500 items from regional archives,
    • 725 muster rolls from the War of 1812, New York State
    • Vault items receiving conservation included 254 parchment public laws from the Sixth Congress,
    • 45 treasure items for the ongoing exhibition rotations at the Capitol Visitors Center,
    • 200 other loose records for exhibition or loan.

    Book conservation staff completed conservation on 61 volumes, of which 20 were in support of the processing initiative and 9 were in support of exhibition and loan. Please note that these are the numbers of volumes, and each contained many pages. We count them as single volumes when the treatment is focused on the complete bound structure, rather than the number of pages present.
    Conservation lab staff do other work behind the scenes that was non-treatment related. Conservators installed vulnerable records in exhibit cases or handled them during scanning. Conservation scientists evaluated materials proposed for use in contact with archival photographs or other records, and verified that archives storage boxes met specifications. Data was collected, graphed and evaluated on environmental conditions in many storage and exhibition areas. Staff reviewed records proposed for exhibit or loan to determine condition and treatment needs. Staff led training for volunteers, digital partner staff, archives technicians and others in basic records handling and care. And conservation lab staff help plan and put on the National Archives annual preservation conference. Watch for a posting about the 25th annual conference which is called “Conservation Squared”
    We are posting some interesting projects we have worked on recently on the National Archives Preservation Facebook page. Please friend the page if you wish to see new posts as they go up.

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