Saturday, January 21, 2012

Restoration of Some Burned Military Records

One of the more frustrating record losses affecting 20th-century U.S. research is the 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis that burned 80% of enlisted Army personnel records from 1957 back through World War I and earlier.  There has been no real substitute for the records, though a soldier's career can be pieced together somewhat with morning reports, as long as you know the unit he was in.  The loss of records affected not only research, but the ability of veterans to prove their service and obtain benefits.

An article from January 1, 2012 discusses restoration work being done on these records at the NPRC.  Of the approximately 6.5 million records that were damanged in the fire, so far about 15,000-20,000 records have been fully treated, which is admittedly only a small fraction.  Even the archivists in St. Louis concede that the restoration work will not be finished in their lifetimes.  But every piece of paper restored recovers more information and makes it available to researchers and veterans.

My thanks to Jan Meisels Allen for posting about this article.


  1. In reading that article, I saw that they are not digitizing their records - which is a shame. While I realize that it will cost quite a lot of money and the records would have to be manipulated in various ways to handle the scanning, I truly think this is a loss to the researching community.

  2. I don't totally agree with you on that. While it certainly is convenient to have records digitized, it is always expensive and it is not always cost effective, and I thought they explained that reasonably well in the article, especially from the perspective of taxpayers. As a researcher I realize and expect that many records I use will have to be viewed in person at an archive of some sort. So I do not perceive it as a loss to the research community; the records are becoming available. If they had the means to restore them and decided they weren't worth the effort and threw them away, that would be a loss to researchers.

    The only reason so many of NARA's holdings are currently being digitized is because NARA partnered with a commercial organization. That company had to decide what records were going to have the most appeal to potential consumers, who pay for subscriptions and therefore by extension for the scanning. And consumers like "complete" collections. They chose to go with American Civil War records as one of the first collections, which they are still in the process of digitizing. With the U.S. Army personnel records, so much time and money has to go into restoring them first. Even if they were to be digitized (and who knows, perhaps some day they will be), it would be a very piecemeal process. Bits and pieces of a collection are not commercially viable.


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