Teaching with On-Line Primary Sources: Electronic Data Files from NARA: Hollywood Actors' Participation in World War II

By Gladwin, Lee A. | Teaching History: A Journal of Methods, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Teaching with On-Line Primary Sources: Electronic Data Files from NARA: Hollywood Actors' Participation in World War II


Gladwin, Lee A., Teaching History: A Journal of Methods


Which famous country-western singer and movie start, first name Orvon, served with the U.S. Army Air Forces Transport Command during World War II? Which former child star and costar of the "Andy Hardy" series enlisted in 1944? (1) The answers to these questions may be found, in part, by searching the U.S. Army Serial Number Electronic Merged File and the World War II Prisoner of War File, now available at the National Archives and Records Administration's Access to Archival Databases websites. These and many other servicemen's enlistment and/or prisoner-of-war information await discovery by students and teachers.

Part I: About AAD

Inquiry or discovery teaching methods traditionally employ paper documents as their primary source material. Photographs, diagrams, and textual sources often are favored over the use of electronic files or databases, despite increased accessibility via the Internet. Though introduced in the 1980s by Richard Ennals as a more dynamic way for students to develop problem-solving skills in social studies, data files are not widely used by teachers. This is unfortunate because data files may be searched by querying the database to discover possible sources of pattern fluctuations. Patterns may be explored for contributing factors to an observed phenomenon, and the results can be graphed and printed. Databases or files offer a convenient way to collect and summarize large amounts of information in ways that can be searched, sorted, tabulated, and analyzed by a computer.

Information, for example, may be collected by a survey, such as the ones conducted every ten years by the Bureau of the Census. During World War II information was collected from U.S. Army enlistees at the time of enlistment. Records of U.S. prisoners of war (POWs) were created from prisoner lists compiled by the Axis powers and forwarded to the Provost Marshal General's Office through the International Red Cross in Berne, Switzerland.

To search through these mountains of paper would have been too time-consuming for the U.S. Army personnel who notified next of kin or prepared monthly unit strength reports for the Army Chiefs of Staff. So, wherever possible, the information was summarized in the form of codes that could be punched into the appropriate fields of an IBM punch card. (Show sample card in Theodore Hull's article and/or make printed copies available.) Of course, punch cards are no longer used, but data is still recorded in columns and rows that form a grid. For example, each column of the Army Serial Number Electronic Merged File bears a title, such as Service or Serial Number, Home State of Record, or Civilian Occupation. These columns separate each row, or the enlistee's record, into fields. Information about each U.S. Army enlistee was recorded on long forms at each induction center. A field, such as State, might be punched with the code "91" for California. A motion picture actor's civilian occupation was encoded as "002." The codes were taken from code books such as "Civilian Occupation Codes." Also layouts provided "maps" to the sequence order of the fields on the punch cards, their size (number of characters), and types (alphabetical or numeric data). Using punch cards and code books helped reduce the time it took to find information about individual U.S. Army enlistees. If these servicemen were killed or captured, their cards could be retrieved in order to locate and notify family members. World War II POW card information was used to analyze the current balance between authorized and actual unit strength of combat units. This information, in turn, was vital in determining which units required reinforcement, which kinds of specialization were required, and how many more personnel needed to be drafted.

What follows is an introduction to a large collection of databases available from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) at http://aad.archives.gov/aad/. One of these data files has been selected for illustrative purposes to show how databases might be used in an inquiry or discovery lesson. …

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