Happy Veterans Day!

Every day at the National Archives, we fulfill veterans’ requests for copies of their military records that document their service to our country. The National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis, MO is an office of the National Archives, which has over 80 million permanent records and receives over 5,000 requests for military records every day.

In celebration of Veterans Day, we created a video that helps explain the process of applying for military records. Watch the video to learn more about this important service we offer to veterans and their families.


On one of my first trips as Archivist of the United States, I visited the NPRC. I learned about the employees who do this work, the importance of the records in our holdings, and the process to fulfill requests for copies of records. I got a tour of the VIP vault, where the records of well known individuals are kept, including Elvis Presley, Clark Gable, Ronald Reagan, and General George S. Patton.

During my tour of NPRC, I did not expect the staff to present me with the records of my time in the Navy as a hospital corpsman during the Vietnam War. It was a very thoughtful gesture by the staff of the NPRC.


A portion of the cover of my military service records

enlistment-oathMy signature on the enlistment oath

The National Archives’ employees understand how crucial their responsibilities are to veterans. Recently, they assisted the son of World War II veteran, Walter Pierce. The son had walked into a regional National Archives facility with a letter dated May 1946, recommending his father for the Bronze Star. The medal had never been awarded and the son wondered whether there was an oversight or had the recommendation not been approved.

Staff at the NPRC made this case a priority and found additional documentation. Through our efforts, it was determined that he was entitled to the Bronze Star. Just two days after his 100th birthday and 63 years after the recommendation was written, in a ceremony arranged by the staff, local Army officials presented Walter Pierce with his Bronze Star.

Their expression of honor for veterans is an example for us all.

How are you honoring veterans today?

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4 thoughts on “Happy Veterans Day!

  1. There is a very strong concern with scholars and researchers about the proposed move of pre-20th century military service and pension records to St. Louis. The largest number of researchers who visit the Washington, D.C. facility each day, come to pull military and pension records, not only for customers, but to research their family history.
    Moving these records to St. Louis will not only place these records out of access to the large majority of American citizens, it will cost many independent researchers their jobs, in providing a valuable service to those who cannot physically visit Washington, D.C. Attempts to obtain records from the St. Louis center are difficult, if not impossible. We understand that there is a shortage of space for records, but this is not a solution.
    Researchers are already losing access to Civil War Widow pension records with the Family Search digital partnership. This “non-exclusionary” contract is in reality an “exclusionary” contract, giving Family Search access to the records, which they digitize in black and white at a low resolution. These records are removed from public access, substituting the original with a poor black and white copy for public viewing within the Archives facilities. While the Archives claims that this digital partnership is providing a digital copy to protect the original document from undue handling, the low resolution grayscale digital image is not an acceptable substitute for the original documents, as valuable data is lost converting the color documents to black and white. To ensure that all historical data is preserved and accessible, the digital document must be in color at an acceptable resolution. Any digital project that is providing grayscale images to the Archives vs. a 24 bit color image is not only cheating the Archives, but the American public. The purpose of these digital projects is to provide a digital copy, making these resources available to the vast public, who cannot afford to visit Washington, D.C. An immense amount of time is being spent preparing these documents for digitization. Accepting anything less is dumbing down history, and denying the American public access to the document in its original format – color!
    Millions of records are currently out of reach to scholars because the Archives has scattered the records around to the various regional facilities. Researcher visitation is poor at these facilities, and the records sit on the shelf collecting dust.
    The regional facilities are in bad areas of town, out of easy reach to mass transportation. Money would be better invested in creating a new Archives complex in the D.C., Virginia or Maryland area, where the American public have access to all of our nation’s history in one place. Close the regional facilities, re-evaluate the current digital partnerships, place higher standards, which meet the needs of preservation, providing an end product that has longer shelf life. Management involved in these partnerships must have a strong technology background. Poor decisions and poor planning (no storage solutions) require thinking outside of the box.
    In conclusion, moving our historical documents outside of the D.C. area, is a no-win situation for everyone involved. Researchers encourage the Archivist to look at other alternatives. It will take decades to digitize all of these records. Take advantage of the small businesses that are eager to work with the Archives, but have been ignored. We may be small businesses, but we are producing quality products. The Archives can’t afford to go the “cheap and dirty” route.

  2. Thank you, Karen, for your thoughtful feedback. We are glad to hear from researchers, like yourself, who could be negatively impacted if military and pension records are relocated to our St. Louis facility. As you stated, we are considering moving these records in the future because the storage areas in the National Archives Building and at College Park will be filled to capacity in three years. The idea is that records would be digitized one section at a time, made available online, and then moved to St. Louis.

    We understand the great interest in military and pension records. Making these records available online would provide greater access for the public as well as professional researchers.

    There are a number of factors we consider when determining the technical requirements for individual digitization projects, in particular the characteristics of the records themselves and the needs of those who will use the images. We agree that higher quality digital images are often more desirable, but we need to weigh the value added against the costs of production and storage.

    Susan Cummings
    Director, Access Programs
    Office of Records Services, Washington, DC
    National Archives and Records Administration

  3. Hi Susan, thanks for getting back. While the scholarly and research community may be smaller in size than the genealogical population, the fact that the digital images do not represent the original document leaves the general population with a false understanding of that document. If they realized the historical data they are losing with a scanned microfilm image vs. a digital color image, they would be able to gain more understanding of the history associated with their family’s records. A low resolution black and white scan does not provide the Archives with a reproduction image,which requires the Archives to have to go back and redo the work that would have been unnecessary if the original work had been done with higher standards.

    Weighing the cost of production and storage is important, but since most of these digital projects are being done by outside sources who are also storing the digital images, the Archives at the present time is getting what they pay for. The results of a “cheap and dirty” route have resulted in
    1. poor quality images online
    2. poor indexing and organization
    3. loss of access of original records to researchers and scholars who need the data lost when the original has been reproduced in black and white
    4. Exclusionary contracts prohibiting other companies from providing an alternative color product

    Storage these days is inexpensive if you have your own servers. The Archives also has the option of contracting with companies who have the storage experience. Letting companies with the expertise to store these images, also allows the Archives to focus on preserving and providing access.

    There is also the option of placing those high resolution color images on new color microfilm which has the same shelf life as the old grayscale microfilm. The Archives has this equipment, but so far has not created any standards for inhouse use. This is a solution to storage for the near future and will provide the Archives with quality color reproductions of documents.

    It is time to think outside of the box. We live in a color world. If we are going to encourage this new younger generation to become interested in history, you won’t do it with bad xerox copies of documents. That stamped “Confidential” or “Top Secret” gives character to that document. The penciled note of a Civil War general plays an important part in analyzing that document. All of this is lost in a black and white document.

    Researchers and scholars need access to the original documents if a color reproduction is not made available. There is much more than textual information on the records. Stamps, markings, in particular the blue and red markings signify who read those documents, what departments the document traveled through, etc.

    The Archives has gained very little in their prior contracts with Ancestry, Lexus Nexus, Footnote and others. While the Archives receives a complimentary roll of microfilm, Lexus Nexus, in return, charges thousands of dollars for that same roll of microfilm and charges outrageous subscription fees for the public records they filmed at the Archives. Ancestry, Footnote, and Family Search projects, may provide poor microfilm scans online, but they charge significant subscription fees, and in many cases, their indexing, and search lists provide inaccurate information, once again creating problems for the public that are attempting to use the records.

    Using the correct metadata, and organization is vital to any digital project. If it is not done correctly, the documents online are just as difficult to use as the boxes of records at the Archives, which have no index or inventory.

    Moving records out of the D.C. metro area is not a solution for NARA. Washington, D.C. holds not only the Archives, but the Library of Congress, DAR, Smithsonian, and other vital holdings of records, which enable researchers and scholars to use their time wisely. Regional facilities don’t have the visitorship to justify the operational expenses which are pulled out of Archives budget. Instead of spending millions of dollars to build that new facility in St. Louis, it would be better spent either building or leasing a building in the D.C. area to store the records.

    I completely agree that placing these records online enables millions of people to have access, but if it isn’t done right, the taxpayer will be the big loser in the end. I want to see my tax dollars being used effectively. I am willing to pay for the Cadillac version vs. the economy model. I guarantee that the payoff will be a longer shelf life and access to the document in its original format.

  4. Hi! Karen,

    Believe me, we hear you loud and clear. We continue to talk internally and with our partners about the best ways of meeting the needs of all our researchers, protecting the records, and operating effectively as an archives. Some of your points have come up before and were addressed in a NARAtions blog post last May. As we move forward we promise to keep our stakeholders informed. As always, thank you for your commitment to the records!

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