Documents in the Digital Age: Electronic Records May Alter the Way We and Our Students Think about Primary Sources

By Potter, Lee Ann | Social Education, April 2005 | Go to article overview

Documents in the Digital Age: Electronic Records May Alter the Way We and Our Students Think about Primary Sources


Potter, Lee Ann, Social Education


Electronic records pose the biggest challenge ever to record keeping in the Federal Government and elsewhere. How do we identify, manage, preserve, and provide on-going access to e-mail, word-processing documents, and other kinds of electronic records that are proliferating in formats, mushrooming in quantity, and vulnerable to quick deletion, media instability, and system obsolescence? There is no option to finding answers, however, because the alternative is irretrievable information, unverifiable documentation, diminished government accountability, and lost history.

[Former] Archivist of the United States, John Carlin September 21, 1998

IN THE NEARLY SEVEN YEARS since John Carlin, former archivist of the United States, spoke these words about the importance of finding answers to questions posed by electronic records, many individuals and institutions have been busy looking for these answers.

Motivated by a long-term vision for an archives of the future, the National Archives has launched the Electronic Records Archives (ERA) initiative. This program builds on the agency's commitment, begun more than 30 years ago, to preserving and providing access to computer-readable historical records. Rather than simply an archives consisting of many buildings scattered across the country, ERA envisions an "Archives of the Future" that will be available on the desktop of anyone who has a computer and chooses to explore the records of the United States government.

Progress toward such an archives is underway. In February 2003, the National Archives launched the Access to Archival Databases (AAD) resource. AAD provides online access to electronic records that are highly structured, such as in databases. Currently, AAD contains material from more than 40 archival series of electronic records, which include more than 400 data files totaling well over 70 million unique records. Two of the archival series that may be of particular interest to readers of SOCIAL EDUCATION include World War II Army Enlistment Records and Records about Japanese Americans Relocated during World War II. (A complete list of the series is available at aad.archives.gov/aad/ topic_search_results.jsp?filter=ALL.)

Both of these series contain information that was originally recorded by hand, subsequently recorded on computer punch cards, and later migrated to digital magnetic tape, their current preservation medium. The original handwritten forms were destroyed, and the punch cards are now useless because the machines that could read them are obsolete, but the records have been preserved and are more accessible today than ever before. The data continues to be of value to historians, genealogists, educators, students, and others.

World War II Army Enlistment Records

This series contains records of approximately nine million men and women who enlisted in the United States Army between 1938 and 1946, including the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps. Although incomplete, the records contain data for a majority of the enlistees in the United States Army during World War II. In general, the records contain the recruit's serial number, name, state and county of residence, place of enlistment, date of enlistment, grade, Army branch, term of enlistment, nativity (place of birth), year of birth, race, education, civilian occupation, and marital status.

Teaching Suggestions

1. As an introduction to the information available in this database, ask each student to select a person they know of (a famous individual, a relative, or other) who enlisted in the army between the years 1938-1946. Direct them to the main page for the series at aad.archives.gov/aad/series_description. jsp?series_id=3360&coll_id=null, and then ask them to click on the red "select" button. At the next screen, ask students to select the first option and scroll down to the bottom half of the page to conduct a search. Instruct students to input the "values" they know and select "search.

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