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Four Secrets to Searching the National Archives
by Phil Stewart

Do you remember the last scene in the 1981 movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, when the wooden crate containing the Ark of the Covenant was moved into that huge limitless warehouse for storage?

After recently completing a short very informal survey, that scene from the movie is what a majority folks think of when they are asked to describe the U.S. National Archives. Scary, isn’t it. Properly called the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), located in Washington, D.C., the National Archives is the nation’s record keeper. The latest estimates, nobody is sure of the exact total, show that the NARA has in its custody approximately:

  • billions (that’s the official estimate) of machine-readable data sets.
  • 9 billion pages of textual records.
  • 20 million still photographs.
  • 7.2 million maps, charts, and architectural drawings.
  • 365,000 reels of motion picture film.
  • 110,000 videotapes.

All of these materials are preserved because they are important to the workings of the Government, have long-term research worth, or provide information of value to you — the U.S. citizen.

In an effort to allow enhanced access to many of these holdings, NARA developed the online Archival Research Catalog (ARC). This is the latest Web-based research tool that provides a portal to the content and physical descriptions of all its archival holdings. The stated goal is to have 95 percent of NARA’s records input into ARC by 2016. At this time, about two-thirds of the holdings have been loaded into this digital super-catalog, but not all of these entries have comprehensive descriptions.

Obviously then, ARC is far from complete. It’s dynamic, with content updates all the time. A subject that you research one week may have no hits and then have hundreds the next time you do a search. In addition, ARC is not as easy to use as your favorite Web browser, and it has been known to be rather obstinate. It does not have as much “fuzzy logicapostrophe as I would think it should have, but maybe that will be part of the next software upgrade. The ARC main webpage,, has much more detailed information for your review.

ARC Search Tips
Let’s say you wanted to do some research on Charles Lindbergh, the first aviator to fly across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927. If you load that term in the ARC search box on the webpage noted above, you’ll end of with a list of 126 items. Before you start the laborious process of scanning each one of the listings, I would suggest you try these little known search tips.

  1. After you get your first list of results, find and select the “Refine Searchapostrophe button near the top of the page. This will bring up the “Archival Descriptions Advanced Searchapostrophe page. Set the “Limit Resultsapostrophe button to 2,000 to ensure that you get the greatest number of hits during your refined search.
  2. Now select the “Highlight Search Termsapostrophe box. This will highlighted in yellow the matching words in your search criteria.
  3. Scroll down the page until you find a section called “Type of Archival Materials.apostrophe You have eight choices to pick from which will reduce the scope of the subsequent search; and yes, you can check more than one. In this example, let’s say you’re interested in historical film footage of Lindy for that video production you’re editing, so you’d deselect all the types listed except for “Moving Images.apostrophe This will narrow your next set of search results to motion picture and video items.
  4. Then click on the “Search buttonapostrophe and you should find a list of 77 film titles for your review.

So, whatever you’re looking for in the NARA, try using ARC to find it. If you use the four secrets mentioned above you’ll have a better than average chance of finding what you are looking for, if it exists in the racks and stacks of the National Archives.

About the author:

Phil Stewart is a retired Air Force officer, specializing in the video production. He then opened a video production company, worked as a television director, and currently manages a multimedia facility. Mr. Stewart volunteers as a motion picture film researcher for the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. Heapostrophes authored four books and three articles on the motion picture films held within the National Archives. Visit for more information.