Monday, July 11, 2005

Archival Quality

The National Archives promises us a new website design on July 20th—and not a moment too soon. Let's hope that along with spiffy new graphics, the redesign will offer better navigational aids, and shortcuts to the great databases hidden within the NARA site.

I've used the NARA site many times to search World War II enlistment records, but each time I visit I'm forced to click through as many as nine pages before I arrive at the appropriate search page. (If I remember to choose the menu item "Access to Archival Databases," I can cut this to six clicks.) The page I need can't be bookmarked, nor is there a "permalink" available that targets this particular page. (The series description page can be bookmarked, but it still takes two more clicks to access the search engine.)

When I do finally reach the search engine for "Electronic Army Serial Number Merged File, ca. 1938 - 1946," I find that the interface was designed by a sadist. If I want to search for records from my home county, Oxford County, Maine, I must first select from the "Code List" the correct state code for Maine: 12. I then must select a county code: 017.

The search results are full of useful information. I am told that Lawrence C. Murphy's place of enlistment was "1278", and that his civil occupation was "138". I must view the record details to learn that he enlisted in Portland, Maine, and was employed as a "MOTORCYCLE MECHANIC or PACKER, HIGH EXPLOSIVES (Munitions worker, ammunition) or TOOLROOM KEEPER or STOCK CLERK or STOCK CONTROL CLERK"—a disturbingly broad range of occupations.

It doesn't take long to become accustomed to the quirks of the NARA site and to reap its full benefits. But many newcomers to computers and genealogy have undoubtedly lost their way, or lost patience with the search engines, and as a consequence gave up on this valuable site. If the new design can improve accessibility and reduce the intimidation these users perceive, there might be hope for the United States government after all.

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