National Archives Month - How does VA do it?
Many people interested in our progress have asked excellent questions about what we are doing, how we are going to get there, and who we intend to be. As those answers have come clearer, Archives Month seemed to be an excellent time to discuss them.
VA's archives are both digital and physical
One of the earliest decisions I made as the VA History Office Senior Archivist was that digital and textual records would carry equal importance in the National VA History Center (NVAHC) Archives, and that the infrastructure was built at the same time. The truth is that digital materials are as fragile and at risk, just in a different way. Think about the 1990s through the mid-2000s, when we were saving everything to 3.5 inch disks and CD-ROM. Through time, hardware and software changes, and disks simply being thrown away, many of those records are simply gone.
This dual concept was important enough that when designing an image for the cover of NVAHCA’s Collections Management Plan, I asked our designer, Tessa Kalman, formerly of the Dayton VA Medical Center, to represent both of these priorities, and she did a beautiful job.
This balanced emphasis means we can serve a good portion of researchers now. Although we do not currently have the kind of physical working space that a researcher would expect, we can still meet at least some of those needs. For example, we have a French researcher working on mental health of returning soldiers. Because one of our collections is solely digital, we are able to respond to her faster than if we only focused on textual collections. It doesn’t make textual materials less important, rather there’s a value lost there if we focused on one aspect of our development. Our collections exist to serve researchers and that’s what we do.
How we serve researchers now and in the future.
How do we actually serve researchers in France, at universities, and in our own senior leadership? First, by developing an excellent Collections Management Plan (CMP), which tells NVAHC Archives what and how, but also defines what researchers can expect and creates a level playing field for service. Then, researchers contact us -- usually through the VAHO email email@example.com, with their request. One of the ways we aid research requests is the use of finding aids.
These give the researcher the opportunity to find materials they are looking for and to expand into areas they may not have considered.
Where will we be in a year?
By this time next year, it is a fervent hope that we will have the type of web presence allowing researchers to look through our finding aids and then request the specific documents they wish to see. Next year is too soon for a fully-fledged website that will enable them to pull the documents on their own, but that’s our desired long term end-state. The back-end analytics will allow us to maintain our metrics and glean information about where to further direct resources.
Why is the NVAHC important?
While the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has long been responsible for collecting federal government documents, they are selective and only collect 3-5% of records, focusing mostly on the “what” of an agency’s work. At NVAHC Archives, we are interested in the answering “how did that happen." We have a scope of collections and defined criteria (the CMP) that help ensure we stay within scope and provide researchers with unique material.
Ok, I read all that. Now show me something cool!
Below are images from a scanned souvenir program book from the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, circa 1890.
At that time, the campus was a tourist attraction as well as a domiciliary. The booklet gives glimpses into what Veterans and tourists experienced. I wouldn’t call it Insta-worthy but you can very much see what things looked like at that time. A number of the buildings pictured still stand, including Building 116 which is where the future museum will be housed. Your prize is on the last page – you’ll know it when you see it!
Happy Archives Month, everyone!
By Robyn Rodgers, Senior Archivist, VA History Office and the National VA History Center
Archives Month Graphics: https://www2.archivists.org/initiatives/american-archives-month-the-power-of-collaboration
Full size finding aid and cover attached
PDF of booklet attached