Gen-Fed: “What is Past is Prologue.”

I enjoyed Gen-Fed; those of you who follow me on Facebook know that already! I feel more comfortable working within NARA, with the Staff and the records, and even the website, than I did before I arrived.  Here are some of my research observations of my week.  Specific tips will be covered later.

  • One of the easiest records to pull is a Civil War pension or a Civil War Compiled Military Service Record (CMSR). If you have individuals who served in the Civil War, I recommend that these records be pulled first.  Pick up the military form, fill it out, take it to the desk on first floor. They will review your work and make sure you have entered things correctly. You then put it into the pick up box. And you are done with that request. You can put in a maximum of 4 requests per hour.
  • Picking up the pension/CMSR isn’t that hard either. After the pull of the record, you go to the research room on 2nd floor, turn left and go to the far wall (in the next room) to request your file. Of course, there are security stops along the way but the actual process of picking up a record is simple. Have fun!
  • I call these types of records “episodic;” that is, you request a file by given & surname and you get it. You review one, and that is it. Bounty land records fall into this category as well (with an extra step).
  • “Longitudinal research” is what I call subject research.  Longitudinal research “feels” more like a fishing expedition where you are looking at subject files (not filed by surname) that may or may not directly refer to your ancestor.  NARA is really set up for longitudinal research. Therefore, one week will never seem enough for this type of research.
  • I had to manage my expectations. We get used to “grazing Ancestry” and finding (or not) hits with some regularity. Archival research, especially longitudinal research, is contemplative and strategic– one cannot expect positive results on the hour.  It just doesn’t happen.  If you get a “hit” with one record a day—consider that a good day. Two?–total win.

I think my comments above go to my core issue–NARA research is different, and it has something to do with the fact they file by record group, but there is more to it than that. NARA seems  overwhelming, but like life–you take it a chunk at a time.

In any archive, there is a total dependence on the archivist that is not true of researching in a library.  That is not a bad thing; I love having interactions with a deeply knowledgeable archivist.  I am grateful for the experienced archivists and I am very gentle with those that are still learning the records.  All of us were there at one time or another. In archives, we have to “ask for help.” And, it’s OK if we do!

I could have been better prepared for my Gen-Fed experience, — maybe “better” is the wrong word. Maybe the right word is “differently.” It is one of those things where you say to yourself, “If I knew then what I know now…” I should have done more reading of the NARA publications, particularly of the ones I would most likely access–Civil War Records and land records. I have some NARA directories in my library and I should have reviewed those. I should have spent more time online getting very familiar with the website…shoulda, shoulda, shoulda.

The reality is that now that I have gone through Gen-Fed, those books and the website make a whole lot more sense than they did before, so I question whether I would have been more knowledgeable or just more frustrated, if I have done more reading.

GenFed actually leaves you some time to conduct research during the week–the urban myth of no research time at Gen-Fed is false. Malissa and Debra have done a good job of scheduling. For example, I had the form filled out at Archive II and put into the pull box, before we even started the presentations in the morning. When the morning talks were over, I went and picked up the file. Since I had brought my lunch, I could review the file and then eat lunch all before the afternoon sessions.

Did I mention that I loved my classmates? They were all so smart and so eager to learn. It was great fun sharing discoveries and being supportive even when that special record just didn’t happen! Thanks.

Next blog will be some specific hints for a successful GenFed experience or NARA visitation.

Happy hunting!


What I have done since the last posting: vacationed with my family on the Cape, presented at the Falmouth Genealogy Society, worked on and submitted my presentations for the International Germanic American Conference; and responded to questions from the registrants for the next Certification Discussion Group and added folks to the wait list. (I already have a long wait list for the Fall and even winter session, but don’t let that impede you from sending me an email and signing up–the list isn’t going to get shorter if you wait.) And, of course, GenFed and some of my own research.


8 comments on “Gen-Fed: “What is Past is Prologue.”

  1. LisaGorrell says:

    I’m looking forward to your future posts on NARA research. I’m attending the PMC and have some extra days in DC. I hope I can spend a day at NARA.

  2. Jill Morelli says:

    good plan to have a full day. I am working on the next post about tips now.

  3. Jamie Mayhew says:

    Jill, I’m glad they’ve made some changes. I attended three years ago and we had very little research time so it wasn’t an “Urban Myth” at that time. Nothing was open in the evening except our one evening at the DAR so we had some great dinners. Sounds like the changes have been good. I hope to be able to attend again.

    • Jill Morelli says:

      We went to the DAR one evening (open special for us) and then we went to the Library of Congress one night they were normally open. I stayed with a friend and so I wasn’t able to partake of the advantage of staying at the Gen-Fed hotel. Interesting that you would like to attend again. I was thinking that in a few years I would like to attend again also.

  4. Harold McClendon says:

    I attended the program in 2001 and it proved to be helpful to me in my researching at the Archives. I am lucky to live near Washington and visit both A1 & 2 often. Advanced preparation is critical. You need to have a plan when you walk in the door and you need to know their pull times. They also have limits on the number of pull requests that you can submit each hour. Prior to the visit study the microfilm catalog of microfilm. Each microfilm group has a publication that you can access through the catalog that describe the records on the film and how they are organized. Study the Guide to Federal Records so that you know what records are in each Record Group. When you arrive and meet with the staff to prepare your pull request for original records. They will permit you to submit more than are permitted for the first pull request. They just divide the request up over all of the pulls for the day. You can decide the order. Then while you wait you can either look at microfilm. You can save the images to a flash drive but for a cost. You can also print the records for a cost. You need to have money on your card. You can also meet with the Archivist staff to identify other original records to have pulled. These will be also be by Record Group. There will be publications in each Record Groups called Preliminary Inventories that you have to read to identify the Entry number to use in pulling records. If you have an ancestor who served in the military from WWI, don’t forget A2. If you know the unit information, the staff can help you prepare the pull request. With all pull request, when you return the records, you can ask them to hold the records for 7 days. Even if you think you have finished with the records it gives you protection in case you find you need the records again. Don’t forget the Library of Congress. When you have a Reader Card which is required to do most anything, you can search their catalog for books and have them pulled for you to review. This way they are waiting for you when you get to the room you have specified. They have scanners you can use for free and save the image to a flash drive. Then there is the map room with the Sanborn Maps, the newspaper room with a very large collection of English and foreign papers, the manuscript room and the very complete city directory collection. There are many books here that are also in Salt Lake City. Then there is the DAR Library. Documentation supporting applications are on their computers, there is an extensive collection of books on the states and counties and there is a large collection of family history books. Check their catalog. I would suggest that you come to DC prior to GEN-FED for at least 3 days to gather some information and understand better hom everything works. You will be better prepared to absorb the information in the classes. Then you need to stay at least three days after the conference to put to use some of your new skills. There is a rather inexpensive motel out at Springfield Town Center and a Metro stop on the Blue line that you can easily switch to the Yellow line that takes you to the Archives.

  5. Steve Conner says:

    Thanks for the insight. I am certainty looking forward to attending GenFed 2018 and if it works out that i am able to attend, I will be following your posts for additional tips!

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