Research Our Records

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about
Accessing Electronic Records Online
via the Online Catalog

These frequently asked questions only pertain to the selection of permanent Federal electronic records (excluding most special media digital records) transferred to NARA and available in the online catalog via the Online Public Access (OPA) resource.

Basic questions about accessing and downloading electronic records from the online catalog

What components of electronic records are available for access and download from the online catalog?

There are three components to the electronic records:

  • There are the files containing the electronic records.

  • There is the Technical Specifications Summary. This lists the files available for download for a specific series or file unit description, along with the formats and sizes (metadata) of the files.

  • There are the files containing the technical documentation for the electronic records. The technical documentation includes record layouts, field descriptions, code lists, user notes, and other agency materials about the records. The technical documentation is especially necessary for those files containing raw data because it is needed to interpret the raw data.

How do I find electronic records and technical documentation files that are available for access from the online catalog?

  1. Go to the online catalog main page at: http://research.archives.gov/ .
  2. Conduct a search for the records of interest to you. You can search by keyword, National Archives (description) identifier, or type of archival material.
  3. If you locate a description of records of interest to you in the Online Holdings search results, skip to step 7. If you locate a description in the Description Only search results, go to step 4.
  4. Select to view the full description from the Description Only search results. If it is a series description, then it will have the message: "This series describes records, some of which may not be available online." If files are available from the online catalog for download, then they are attached to the file unit descriptions for that series.
  5. Under the "Includes:" field, click on the link "n file units described in the catalog" for a list of the file unit descriptions within that series.
  6. Those file unit descriptions that have files attached for viewing/downloading will appear in the Online Holdings search results. If there is only one file unit, the full description will appear.
  7. Select the description from the Online Holdings search results of interest to you.
  8. The files available for viewing/downloading are listed at the beginning of the file unit description.
  9. Click on the "view/download" link to view and download the file (usually only available for files in PDF) or click "download" link to save/download the file.

If the description you select from the Description Only search results has the message: "This File Unit describes records, some of which may not be available online," then the files are not available via the online catalog. However, files that are available online via the Access to Archival Databases (AAD) resource will have a link in the "Online Resource(s)" field.

How do I download or save the files?

Most of the electronic records files currently available for download consist of raw data. The data are in a software-independent format so you can use the records with your own software. Most of these files do not contain a contemporary standard file extension that indicates the format or type of file. These files are usually not appropriate for viewing within the browser.

The Technical Specifications Summary and technical documentation (see above) provide information about the format of the files. We suggest reviewing the Technical Specifications Summary and technical documentation before downloading the electronic records files. Depending on your browser, the option to save files identified as download only may appear as "Do you want to open or save this file?", "You have chosen to open:" or "Save As". We recommend you save the file to your computer and then open the file using the appropriate software available to you. If given the option, we suggest saving files that do not have a contemporary standard file extension as "All Files."

Some files are available as a compressed WinZip (.zip) file. While the compressed file contains the standard .zip extension, the file(s) within the WinZip file may or may not contain contemporary standard file extensions.

Can I download or save all the files in a series at the same time?

No. The online catalog currently does not allow for downloading all the files or digital objects within a file unit or series at the same time. You have to go to each file unit description to download each file separately.

What software programs or applications do I use with the electronic records files?

Please refer to the Technical Specifications Summary and the technical documentation for details on the formats of the electronic records files.

In general, the electronic records files are in a software-independent format so you may use the files with whatever appropriate software is available to you. For example, files containing raw structured data may be used in various spreadsheet and database programs. Files containing ASCII text may be used with various word-processing, spreadsheet, and database programs. Files in HTML or XML may be used in various word-processing or database programs, or may be best used in a program that reads HTML or XML coding.

For files that do not have a contemporary standard file extension, you may need to first open the appropriate program you wish to use and then open the file within that program or import the data into that program. The specific steps for opening the files depends on your operating system, the specific program, and the file itself.

Some files may be in a non-contemporary format or in a software-dependent format, but the software may no longer be available. You may need to reformat these files before you can use them with current programs or applications.

Other files may be in a format that requires specific software applications in order to use them. For example, files containing digital cartographic data or geospatial data (e.g. shape files) are most suitable for use in geographic information systems.

Additional questions about technical documentation available from the online catalog

What is the Technical Specifications Summary?

The Technical Specifications Summary (TSS) is a list or manifest of all the electronic records files available online for a series or file unit description. This list includes the technical metadata for each file, such as the byte count, file format, record length (for fixed-length records), number of records, and file identifiers and names. This technical metadata is usually needed for using the files after they have been downloaded. For example, technical metadata can help users determine the appropriate software to use with the file.

What is technical documentation?

Technical documentation consists of the materials needed to interpret raw data or otherwise use the electronic records. These materials may include agency-prepared record layouts, field descriptions, code lists or meanings, user notes, and the sample questionnaires or forms the agency used to collect the data. The technical documentation also usually includes NARA- prepared materials such as user notes, list of documentation, and sample printouts of the data files. Sometimes the technical documentation is in the form of a code book, user manual, or data dictionary. In some cases, the agency transferred and NARA preserved some or all of the documentation in electronic format.

For some series of electronic records there may be supplemental documentation. Supplemental documentation consists of materials related to the electronic records, but usually not necessary for using or interpreting them. Examples of supplemental documentation include frequency counts, tabulations or other statistical reports, printouts of software programming, and printed narrative reports about or related to the records.

NARA selected from the technical and/or supplemental documentation the materials most necessary and helpful for using and understanding the electronic records. Where NARA originally received this material in paper format, NARA has scanned it to make it available online. While every effort was made to produce the best quality scans of the paper technical documentation, the readability and visual quality of the original documentation varies and that is reflected in the digitized copies. In general, most supplemental documentation and NARA's processing or verification materials were not scanned and thus are not online.

Is all the documentation the same for all files in a series?

It depends. For some series, the same documentation applies to all the files. Therefore the same technical documentation files may be attached to multiple file unit descriptions.

For other series, the documentation is specific to one or a few of the files. In this case, the documentation will only be attached to the relevant file unit description(s).

The Technical Specifications Summary lists the unique documentation files for a series or file unit. Users may wish to check the Technical Specifications Summary to ensure they have obtained all the necessary documentation.

Are any of the code lists or other documentation available in a database or other format that may be manipulated?

For series or files where the agency transferred code lists or other documentation in a database or other manipulable format, those files are available for downloading along with the other technical documentation files. In some cases, there are data files that also serve as code lists. These files may be listed as electronic records files instead of technical documentation files.

For the electronic records series also available for online search and record-level retrieval via the Access to Archival Databases (AAD) resource at www.archives.gov/aad, you can download the code lists from AAD in a comma-separated value (CSV) format.

May I obtain the technical documentation by means other than downloading the files?

Yes. You may order photocopies of the paper documentation and copies of electronic documentation files as transferred by the agency for a cost-recovery fee. For more information see: Ordering Information for Electronic Records and/or contact us.

Additional questions about electronic records available from the online catalog

Are all accessioned electronic records files within a series available from the online catalog?

No, not all files in a series may be available from the online catalog. Only the electronic records files and technical documentation in a series that are unrestricted or public use versions are available for online access. Please see the access and/or use restrictions fields in the series and/or file unit descriptions.

In addition, when NARA has accessioned multiple versions of a file, typically only the most recent version will be made available online. If NARA has custody of a file in both a contemporary or software-independent format and a non-contemporary or software-dependent format, then usually only the contemporary or software-independent format is available online.

What are the formats of the electronic records files that are available online?

The electronic records files available online were created and preserved in a variety of formats. Whenever possible, NARA has preserved the electronic records files in a software-independent format.

For files in most formats, NARA provides exact copies of the files. However, for some of the structured data files preserved in standard EBCDIC encoding with fixed-length records, NARA auto-converted them into ASCII encoding when possible and added record delimiters as part of preparing the files for online access. Similarly, NARA added record delimiters to structured data files preserved in ASCII with fixed-length records.

May I access accessioned electronic records by means other than downloading?

Yes. You may order reproductions of unrestricted electronic records files on removable media (such as CD or DVD) for a cost-recovery fee. You can also order copies of the technical documentation. For more information see: Ordering Information for Electronic Records and/or contact us.

You can search and retrieve individual electronic records from a selection of archival structured databases online via the Access to Archival Databases (AAD) resource at www.archives.gov/aad.

Contact Information

Reference Services
Electronic Records
National Archives at College Park
8601 Adelphi Road
College Park, MD 20740-6001
(301) 837-0470
email: cer@nara.gov

July 2013

Electronic Records Main Page

Research Our Records >

The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
1-86-NARA-NARA or 1-866-272-6272

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