News Topic

Advocacy, Archives & Records




United States

The AHA wrote to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) on behalf of historical researchers seeking clarity about reopening plans. The questions in the letter drew on email communications received by the AHA and other membership organizations.

NARA has provided responses to the questions posed in the AHA’s letter, as well as a communication to researchers. We are glad to publish these responses as a window into NARA’s reopening process and future plans. The AHA continues to work with our colleagues at NARA to increase communication between archivists and researchers.

As of November 15, 2021, individual research rooms have begun to reopen at 50% capacity. Dates of reopening depend on CDC transmission levels at each location. See NARA’s Coronavirus page for more information, including a link to the Reentry and Post Reentry Plan. As an example, if a facility is located in an area with “high transmission” level the research room remains closed, but once that area is in “substantial transmission” for three consecutive weeks, NARA will reopen the research rooms at 50% capacity. NARA is exploring adding additional research tables to increase capacity. Hours will be Tuesday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Currently, NARA plans to operate research rooms by appointment only for the duration of the pandemic. The number of appointments available to a researcher will vary by location, depending on researcher demand and staffing. Please consult NARA’s Frequently Asked Questions related to research room reopenings for additional information.

Below, please find the questions forwarded by the AHA, along with NARA’s responses. Please also read this letter to researchers from David S. Ferriero, Archivist of the United States.

What measures are in place or in development to accommodate a potential surge of researchers when current restrictions are lifted entirely?

We have developed a reopening plan that safely and deliberately reopens our research rooms. We will steadily increase or decrease the number of researchers, hours of operation, and number of days open. These decisions will be standardized across our research rooms and based on the local public health conditions. We are examining ways to allow fair and equitable access while capacity is limited and to maximize the number of onsite researchers we can safely serve.

We understand and expect that restrictions will be lifted in increments, depending on local public health conditions. Will any pandemic-related requirements become permanent?

Changes made to mitigate risks during the pandemic are expected to be temporary. However, we cannot predict how long they will need to be in place. We also need to remain flexible to adjust to the evolving public health situation. We have surveyed the participants of our research room reopening pilots to solicit feedback on their experience during the pilots to help us plan for the eventual full reopening of the research rooms to the public. Based on their responses, input from staff, and future input from researchers, we expect to continually assess our research room policies and make changes as needed. Any changes will be clearly communicated to the public in advance of implementation.

Might NARA institute a process within the contours of federal regulations that maximizes equitable access for NARA’s various constituencies? Some researchers have specific limitations as to time and material resources to complete their research. Travel distances also differ among individuals and categories of researchers.

NARA has numerous and varied constituencies that conduct onsite research; each constituency faces its own time and resource challenges. We do not intend to prioritize one group of researchers over another, but do factor equitable access as we set and adjust our research room policies.

We encourage NARA to revise upward the limits on the number of boxes that a researcher can access at one time, particularly those traveling long distances domestically or internationally with restricted time to spend. Does NARA plan to modify or otherwise revise its plans according to the most current data available from OCLC’s REopening Archives, Libraries, and Museums Project (REALM)?

NARA has continually assessed the information coming out of the REALM project and has regularly set or adjusted our policies accordingly. At this point in time we do not plan to revise upward the limits on the number of boxes that a researcher can access at one time. These limits are in place principally to ensure the security of the records and pre-dated the pandemic.

Currently, we intend to pull one cart of records in advance, which will be waiting for the researcher at an assigned table. If time permits and depending on the onsite staffing available during the pandemic, additional records may be pulled on the day of the visit.

Does NARA maintain metrics on average usage of its research rooms? Can this information be shared with the public? Would it be helpful for scholarly organizations to survey their members regarding the timing of their planned research trips?

Yes, NARA maintains metrics on the usage of our research rooms. Below is a table showing the number of on-site visits to archival units in Research Services in FY 2019, as well as averages from FY 2015 – 2019. Please note that these numbers include multiple visits by individuals (if one person visited a research room on three days it is reflected as three visits).

Research RoomFY19 Total VisitsFY15-19 Average Total Visits
St. Louis58555649
College Park - Textual29,11231,618
College Park - Cartographic41563852
College Park - Moving Image and Sound23292228
College Park - Still Pictures47704304
Fort Worth8431657
Kansas City16762099
San Bruno14051505
Washington, DC911910,302


We would welcome information from scholarly organizations regarding the research interests, plans, and experiences as we and the scholarly community alike work our way through the pandemic and beyond.

How have the closures of NARA facilities during the pandemic affected the digitization program overall?

The pandemic and NARA’s resulting facility closures reinforced the importance of making records available digitally, a goal NARA was already committed to prior to the pandemic. The majority of digitization activities were suspended during our facility closures; however, we have been able to make significant progress on many digitization projects while also ensuring the safety of staff. For example, the NARA/Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) partnership to digitize declassified deck logs to process claims faster for eligible Vietnam-era Veterans concluded scanning activities on August 31, 2020, despite the challenges posed by the pandemic. We continue to digitize and index the 1950 Census to ensure that it can be released on time on April 1, 2022. In addition, we were able to make and receive regular deliveries of microfilm publications to/from our off-site digitization contractor throughout the entire pandemic period, with limited interruptions. Since July 2020, NARA has received over 7.6 million images from our contractor for a variety of digitized microfilm publications. These images have been or are in the process of being added to the National Archives Catalog. This work is ongoing and we anticipate receiving another 6 million images before the end of the year.

The nature of digitization work requires that much of it needs to be done on-site; however, the pandemic drove our digitization program to think creatively and implement new work processes so we could continue to make records digitally accessible. Research Services successfully implemented a remote image processing workflow for staff. In parallel with the microfilm digitization efforts of our contractor, a small on-site team was able to carry out in-house digitization of microfilm, focusing on heavily used accessioned film including Navy Muster Rolls and the Veterans Administration Master Index to support the National Personnel Records Center Backlog Reduction Effort. Since March 2021, the team has scanned over 800 rolls of accessioned film and over 1,300 microfilm publication rolls. The raw files were pushed to remote staff who are processing these images so they can be made available in the National Archives Catalog. This hybrid approach — on-site scanning and remote processing — will most likely continue throughout the pandemic.

When the pandemic forced facilities to limit or change their onsite operations, NARA, like so many archives around the country, was able to use the time to focus on finalizing many digitization projects that were in process prior to the pandemic. Staff completed the metadata and quality control work necessary to make these images available in the National Archives Catalog. In FY 2020, Research Services was able to add over 12.7 million new digital objects to the National Archives Catalog and for FY 2021, we anticipate adding almost 14 million new digital objects to the Catalog. Among the new content added to the Catalog: 8.5 million digitized pages of Navy Deck Logs, the majority of Department of State microfilm publications that reproduced records dated 1793–1906, and part of the Bureau of Indian Affairs Index to the Central Classified Files.

Does NARA possess the infrastructure to accommodate digital facsimiles of records created by researchers, and the ability to collect such facsimiles? Might the historical community help in this effort as part of a community-driven initiative that would work in tandem with NARA’s systematic ones?

NARA’s Strategy for Digitizing Archival Materials for Public Access, 2015-2024, includes several approaches to digitization. Approach Two: Crowdsourced Digitization states:

On a daily basis, researchers come to NARA facilities and digitize permanent records. The challenge facing NARA is to leverage the public’s interest and digitization activities to populate our online catalog. NARA will establish and publish standards, such as technical and metadata, for use by the public if they wish to contribute their records to our catalog. NARA will pursue multiple tactics to engage the public to share their digitized copies of our records. These tactics could take many forms, but three possible options are:

  • Establishing a Contributor status for individuals interested in donating images and metadata in the appropriate format to NARA
  • Crowdsourcing digitization by providing scanning stations for use by the public in NARA research rooms
  • Soliciting digitized material from researchers and authors

One way NARA did this before the pandemic was through the Innovation Hub at the National Archives in Washington, DC. NARA provides researchers with the opportunity to contribute their time and energy to digitize NARA’s holdings with the Citizen Scanning Program. Any researcher at our Washington, DC, location can have records delivered to them in the Innovation Hub, where they can digitize records with NARA provided scanners. The researcher can take home a copy of the images on their own USB drive free of charge, and the digitized records are added to the National Archives Catalog for the world to use. Additionally, NARA staff provide a portfolio of projects for any researchers who want to contribute their time to digitizing records that are agency priorities.

Since the start of the program in July 2015, over 3,000 Citizen Scanners have digitized 589,680 pages of records from a variety of record series including:

In March 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Innovation Hub closed along with all NARA locations, and the Citizen Scanning Program was halted accordingly. The Innovation Hub will be closed through the remainder of 2021 as NARA monitors local health conditions and makes plans to reopen at a date to be determined in 2022. We look forward to reopening the Innovation Hub, and are interested in meeting with historians who would like to work collaboratively to get more of the records they scan into the Catalog.

Has NARA examined the possibilities of extending research room hours to include evenings and weekends, as pandemic conditions and federal personnel policies allow? At a minimum, can all the facilities be opened on Saturdays?

The changes regarding night and weekend hours were done long before the pandemic. We recognize that night and weekend hours are important to some researchers, but the changes were made based on an examination of the limited demand, the costs, and the limited resources available.

Is it possible to temporarily redeploy, perhaps with additional training, personnel from other NARA departments and/or to rehire retired NARA personnel to staff research rooms, according to magnitude of research interest?

Our current safety and health protocols limit the number of individuals in each research room to ensure appropriate social distancing. However, as research rooms begin to open more fully, NARA will assess the need for additional personnel and respond accordingly.

Given the situation, we would expect an increase in research queries, given the uncertainties of the current moment. Does NARA have sufficient staff to respond promptly and thoroughly to researchers’ queries? Can the process of responding to queries be made more efficient?

We have received research queries consistently throughout the pandemic and have been able to answer some of them regardless of the pandemic. We do not expect the number of queries to increase based on our experience since March of 2020.

We are always exploring ways to be more efficient and effective and to improve our processes to better support researchers. A notable example is the ability for researchers to consult archivists and fellow-researchers and search responses to previous questions and answers using the History Hub.

What can the scholarly community do to assist NARA as it reopens its research rooms to onsite research in terms of advocacy, messaging, or anything else?

We appreciate the opportunity to partner with you to share information with your members during and after the pandemic so that they may be better informed about conducting research at the National Archives.

The scholarly community always has the right to advocate for archives. The National Coalition for History and National Humanities Alliance are active in their advocacy for NARA.

Does the federal budget process provide any opportunities for NARA to request supplementary funds for the above purposes? Can scholarly organizations and the community provide support for soliciting additional resources?

NARA submits a budget every year based on guidance from the Office of Management and Budget and NARA regularly seeks funds to improve our operations.