I was about to write an opening sentence along the lines of “The National Archives are a national treasure.” But then I thought How stupid. Of course it’s a national treasure. Everybody knows that. It’s the kind of statement that’s so painfully apparent it’s not worth putting into print, like announcing that “The universe is vast,” or “Oxygen is vital to human survival,” or “Aaron Goodwin is late sometimes.”
But, well, it really is a big deal. And it’s a big deal to genealogists that it’s been closed for a long time. Distant researchers can typically order copies of select records and microfilms online at the Archives’ eservice page, but for months that page has been headed with this message:
The National Archives and Records Administration has suspended reproduction and digitization services until further notice due to COVID-19. Any orders placed will not be serviced until such time that operations can resume safely; a number of product options have been temporarily disabled. We apologize for any inconvenience. Once operations resume your document reproduction request will be serviced in the order it was received. Customer service representatives are available to answer questions regarding orders currently in our system at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It sounds like we’re entirely out of luck and won’t be able to get anything from the National Archives for the foreseeable future, but that’s not entirely true.
In the spring of 2016, the Archivist of the United States, David S. Ferriero, announced what was then a pilot project called History Hub, “a platform for researchers to connect with people interested in their topic and people interested in our collections and expertise. It will be a support community for researchers, citizen historians, archival professionals, and open government advocates to provide the answers, interpretations, and perspectives you might need.”
That’s all well and good, but what exactly does that generic sales pitch mean? Ferriero goes on to answer the question.
Let’s say, for example, you’re interested in the details of President Andrew Jackson’s removal of Native Americans from the eastern states to territory west of the Mississippi.
Some students weigh in, as do some of their history professors. A few other history buffs with appropriate expertise have something to say about it, as would experts at the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the National Archives staff archivist familiar with the records pertaining to this dark chapter in U.S. history.
The pilot was apparently a success. History Hub is now a permanent and active website, and the message currently found at the top of its home page is a bit more encouraging.
History Hub remains open and available for remote research inquiries and requests during the current public health situation.
The home page also features select Useful Blog Posts, like “Locating Visa Files at NARA” and “You Want to Find Out About an Indian Ancestor”; Popular Content, like “An explanation of what a DD-256 is along with an image of it” and “Birth on United States Military Base Overseas”; Connect with a Community, featuring special interest groups like “Genealogy” and “African American Records”; and more. Click on Get Started! to find out more about what you can do with History Hub, how to ask a question, and how to register (for free). A video there goes into detail about “Exploring History Hub for Genealogists and Researchers.”
What can you really do and find out at History Hub? Other than seeing others’ questions, answers, and discussions, which is both fascinating and useful, you can submit your own question to History Hub or begin your own discussion in a particular community.
I submitted a question to History Hub. In the “U.S. Subject Index to Correspondence and Case Files of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, 1903–1959” on Ancestry, I had found a 1942 entry for an inquiry from the Secretary of War about the birth date, date of entry, and naturalization of a particular man. I was having difficulty locating his naturalization, so I was especially interested in INS’s response to the Secretary of War’s inquiry, but I wasn’t sure exactly how to use the information in the index to order that response from NARA. I had a second case with the same problem and a similar index entry.
Within a couple of days, I received a response from History Hub that I should submit the question to a particular email address at NARA. (I won’t include specific email addresses, names, or phone numbers here.) I submitted my question to that email address, and just four days later, I received a voicemail.
Hey, Aaron. This is [name] at the National Archives in Washington, DC, just giving you a call. I’ve got your email on trying to track down a couple of files from Record Group 85, the INS records we have in our custody down here. The [specific file numbers I asked about], um, we don’t have either one of those files. The index to the correspondence, the T458, was created when those records were active records with the INS. When they were transferred to us many years later, um, there’s lots of gaps. And when questioned about it, INS said they had no idea why there’s gaps, why there’s not, um, files are missing. They suspect that files were inter-filed with other files in similar subject categories, but because nobody cross-referenced the index when the index was still with them, there’s no way of knowing that. But the bottom line is that the two files you’re looking for, we don’t have. If you want to give me a call, we’re coming into the building. We’re still basically closed, but we’re coming into the building two days a week. I’m here today, Tuesday, until a little after 12:00, and then I’ll be in again Friday from roughly 7:00 to 12:00 or 12:30 if you want to get back to me and talk to me. [Gives me his direct number.] Okay? Thanks. Bye.
Is that service or what? I didn’t get the files I was looking for, but I was given a remarkably detailed explanation of why those records weren’t available and an offer for further discussion if his explanation wasn’t clear enough.
Are responses to discussions you begin on History Hub equally useful? One recent discussion sought the family history of a Japanese immigrant and his son. That same day, a researcher responded with a copy of the immigrant’s naturalization record and a copy of his son’s maternal aunt’s obituary, naming the son’s maternal grandparents. The following day, a History Hub staffer responded with a number of links to pertinent records at the Archives as well as recommendations for other sources. The originator of the discussion was, of course, thrilled. Click here to see that discussion.
So the National Archives might be officially closed, but its staff at History Hub and their colleagues aren’t. Go ahead, take a look, and make good use of their excellent tool.
 David S. Ferriero, “Launching the ‘History Hub,’” Prologue Magazine, Spring 2016, vol. 48, no. 1 (https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2016/spring/archivist.html : 4 December 2020).