Thursday, March 14, 2013

NARA and Sequestration II - hours cut

Monday NARA posted on their blog, NARAtions, about the reduced hours for both exhibits and research areas at NARA I and II (downtown DC and College Park).
Obviously this affects those using NARA in person but what about those of you who hire a researcher to access records for you (or ask a friend to do you a favor)? Does this really make a difference? Yes. Prior to opening J.P. Dondero Genealogy I worked at the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution (NSDAR or DAR) as a genealogist. During that time NARA hours were cut and later restored. Then and now, textual NARA records are essentially inaccessible to anyone with a non-flexible work schedule. Hopefully some changes will be made to accommodate this (as they would be a benefit even with evening hours reinstated).
If you've researched at NARA you are probably already familiar with their pull system. For those that aren't this is where the main problem lies. As with many repositories, textual or original records have to be requested and the researcher waits while staff pulls them. At NARA the pull slips are only submitted at certain times (pull times). Depending on the record and how busy NARA is the wait is between 45 minutes to 75 minutes after the pull time for the record to arrive. The wait isn't the issue here but is worth noting to understand the process. A pull slip can be submitted at anytime but sits in a box until the pull time. There are currently no pull times on Saturdays.
Do you see the problem? NARA's new hours are 9-5 Monday to Saturday. If you can't visit NARA before they close Wednesday or Thursday or before the last pull time Friday you can't get textual records on Saturday (records are only held for three days). Basically, if you can't visit NARA during the week due to your work schedule you can't access textual records on Saturday.
There has been talk of an online pull request system which would solve this (and reduce a lot of waiting regardless of the hours). Saturday pull times were tested a few summer's ago and found to be unwanted. However, the Saturday pulls were only advertised via flyers posted in NARA. So, if you didn't visit because you didn't think you could get records pulled, you didn't know you could get records pulled.
Now back to how this affects a non-local. If you will be having an "agent" (whether someone you hire or a friend) access records for you they will have to be able to visit NARA during normal business hours M-F. Anyone with a fixed work schedule won't be able to drop off pull slips after work and come back the next night or Saturday to access textual records.
It takes a lot of money for NARA (or any federal building) to add hours. They require a rather large minimum staff including security guards. NARA I is a large building with multiple areas and multiple security areas which means more staff than a building only requiring security at the entrance and staff in one room. I find it hard to believe there isn't a more cost effective solution that would provide textual records access to those who can't visit M-F, 9-5 and also provide more timely service to those who can. I would visit NARA more often if I could accomplish more while there. Instead I wait until I have a large amount of personal and professional research and a mix of original and microfilm work.
At J.P. Dondero Genealogy we are still determining how the reduced hours will affect our look-up service. Although NARA's reduced hours reduce our efficiency, sequestration has actually improved our childcare options. We should have more concrete information by late April (at the latest) and will post scheduled look-up trips here, on our blog. Please email us with look-up requests for both NARA I and the DAR Library as the more client requests we have, the sooner we schedule a trip.