The National Archives and Record Administration (NARA) is the custodian of permanent public records. These are the public records generated by the public business of the United States but are no longer necessary to execute that business. The mission of NARA is to at once preserve original documents and also to make them available to the public. Only about one percent of all such documents are ultimately retained and archived. The ultimate decision to retain or destroy a public record belongs to the National Archivist. This designation is called “scheduling.” After a public record is scheduled, it may be stored in Federal Record Centers, managed by NARA. At the time dictated by the schedule, the record is either destroyed or permanently transferred to the vaults of the National Archives. NARA also manages the Presidential Libraries.
The public records of the Peace Corps are located in all three locations. The trick is to find them. Let us begin with the actual National Archives located in Washington DC (Archive I) and neighboring College Park, Maryland (Archive II). The public records of the Peace Corps are housed at Archive II in College Park, Maryland. Almost all of these records are hard copy and not available online or in any other digitized format. To access these records, one must travel to College Park or pay to have a particular record copied and mailed. NARA does maintain an excellent website that describes the overall agency and offers specific instruction on how to search for a record. The website is nara.gov. We will start there to find out what records of the Peace Corps are in the archive. We will return many times to this website. Keyboards at the ready? Then, let us start.
1) Go to nara. gov. This brings up the Home page. From here there are different ways to proceed. I am going to first describe the one suggested by an archivist, in response to my query.
2) Click on the box which says “Research our Records”
3) On the next page, look at the box labeled “Search Online.” Click on “Access Research Catalog” (ARC)
4) The ARC page appears. Look at the menu on the left hand side of the page. Click on “Record Groups and Collection”
5) The next page offers a choice of how you wish the selections to be sorted. Click on “Index t0 Record Group in ARC in numeric order by RG number”
6) The list of record collection numbers will appear.
7) Click on the box “400-490”
8) Scroll down to 490 and click on “Records of the Peace Corps 1961 – 1991”
9) This will bring up a summary statement of the record collection. Note that the inclusive dates are now 1961 – 2000 and there is general description of the type of materials archived.
10) In the second section down, there will be two options to obtain individual descriptions. Let us choose first, the 140 series. Click on “140 series “
11) This will bring up all 140 entries. Scroll down to view each one.
12) Click on the title of any entry to obtain more information.
13) Most of the descriptions will be general and do not give a country or a program that might be included within that series. There is a way to further search. Some catalog descriptions will display a container list. The container list would list what each label on each folder within each box says. To check to see if there is a container list:
- Click on the “Print” box on the far right hand side of the individual description page.
- The next page will have a box in the center asking for “Print Description. “Click on “Full Details,” make sure that the “Thumbnail” box is checked.
- A full-page description of the item will appear. Scroll to the very bottom of the page. If there is a container list, it will appear there.
14) To exercise another search option without scrolling through the 140 entries, return to the page with the summary description of the Record Group 490. Click on “Search Within Series”
15) A new search box will appear. Enter a topic or a name. I have found this option difficult to use.
Once you find a document, how can you read it? It is not easy. This is an archive, not a library. In most cases, “You really have to be there.”