Research Our Records

About Online Public Access (OPA)

How does OPA fit with the Electronic Records Archives (ERA)?

Does OPA replace the Archival Research Catalog (ARC)?

How does OPA fit with Archives.gov?

Questions about accessing electronic records files

Questions about technical documentation for electronic records


How does OPA fit with the Electronic Records Archives (ERA)?

The Online Public Access resource is the online public portal to our records and information about our records. The OPA prototype currently provides access to nearly one million electronic records currently in the Electronic Records Archives (ERA), which are not available elsewhere online. More electronic records from ERA will be included in OPA in the coming year.

Does OPA replace the Archival Research Catalog (ARC)?

Yes, ARC Web will be replaced by OPA summer 2013. All of the data and most of the functionality from ARC Web are in OPA. After ARC Web is retired, the catalog data will still continue to be refreshed in OPA twice a week.

How does OPA fit with Archives.gov?

Online Public Access searches all web pages on Archives.gov, and presents those pages in the search results along with any catalog records, biographies and histories from the Archival Research Catalog (ARC). Researchers will no longer need to perform separate searches for finding aids or other information related to our records on Archives.gov.


Questions about accessing electronic records files

How do I find electronic records files that are available online?

Conduct a search in Online Public Access (OPA) for the records of interest to you and view the full description.

All electronic records that are available in OPA for viewing and/or downloading are linked to a File Unit archival description in the "Online Holdings" grouping of search results.

When a search returns Series descriptions that have files that are available online, you can access all the File Unit descriptions for the series by clicking on the link next to the Includes field (e.g., "Includes 18 file(s) described in the catalog".) Any of the returned file unit descriptions with electronic records available online will appear in the "Online Holdings" grouping of search results.

How do I view electronic records files?

Click on the "View/Download" link to open the file in the appropriate application as determined by your browser. Or, the browser may prompt you to select the appropriate application. Once the file opens in the application, you may save the file.

How do I download electronic records files?

Click on the "Download" link to open the browser’s Open/Save As dialog box. You may then save the file. We suggest saving the file as "All Files".

Please note that files containing raw data are usually only available for download. These files usually do not contain a standard file extension that indicates the format or file type, so these files are usually not appropriate for viewing within the browser. Please refer to the Technical Specifications Summary for details on the format of the files.

What software programs or applications do I use to access the records?

Please refer to the Technical Access Requirements Note within the archival description, as well as the Technical Specifications Summary and other 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.

Some files may be in a software-dependent format, but the software may no longer be available. These files may require additional processing before they can be used with current programs or applications.

Are all the files in a Series available for downloading?

No, not all files in a Series may be available online. Only the electronic records and technical documentation that are unrestricted or are 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 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. The following describes some of the formats of the files available online and/or how NARA prepared them for online access:

Structured Raw Data Files

  • For data files preserved in ASCII with fixed-length records, NARA added record delimiters (carriage return and line feed).
  • For data files preserved in standard EBCDIC encoding with fixed-length records, NARA auto-converted them into ASCII encoding when possible and added record delimiters (carriage return and line feed).
  • For data files preserved in ASCII with field and record delimiters, as transferred by the agency, NARA makes them available as preserved. This includes files with comma-separated values (CSV) and files with pipe, tab, or other field delimiters.
  • For data files preserved in ASCII with record delimiters, NARA makes them available as preserved.
  • For data files with EBCDIC variants, including packed decimal fields, binary counters, variable-length records, and/or zoned decimal fields, NARA makes them available as preserved. These files may require additional processing before they can be used with current programs or applications.
  • For data files in column-binary or multi-punched format, NARA makes them available as preserved. These files may require additional processing before they can be used with current programs or applications.

For electronic records files that do not contain structured raw data, NARA can provide exact copies of most file formats, including, but not limited to:

  • HTML files
  • XML files
  • Shape files
  • PDF files
  • ASCII narrative text with internal carriage returns

Most of these types of files often require specific software applications in order to use them.

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 for online access.

For additional information about the formats of the files available online, please contact the Reference Unit.

How may I access files identified as having access and/or use restrictions?

Please contact the Reference Unit listed in the description for information about accessing files with access and/or use restrictions.

May I obtain the data by means other than downloading?

Yes. You may order reproductions of the electronic records files on removable media (such as CD or DVD) for a cost-recovery fee. Please contact the Reference Unit listed in the description for more details.


Questions about technical documentation

What is technical documentation?

Technical documentation is also available for viewing and/or downloading in OPA. This consists of the materials or information needed to interpret raw data or otherwise use the electronic records. These may include agency-prepared record layouts, field descriptions, code lists or meaning, 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. Sometimes the technical documentation is in the form of a code book, user manual, or data dictionary. In some cases, the agency provided some or all of the documentation in electronic format.

For some 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.

What is the Technical Specifications Summary?

The Technical Specifications Summary is also provided as part of the technical documentation. This is a list or manifest of all the electronic records files for a Series or File Unit description that are available online. 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 metadata is usually needed for using the files after they have been downloaded. For example, based on the technical metadata users can determine the appropriate software to use.

What are sample printouts?

Sample printouts or dumps are a printout of what is on the electronic file. They are particularly useful for viewing a sample of a raw data file. When available, the sample printouts may be included in the scanned documentation package file or may be in a separate file of scanned documentation.

Is all of the documentation available for download?

No. 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. In general, most supplemental documentation and NARA’s processing or verification materials were not scanned. The NARA-prepared list of documentation, user notes, or other introductory materials usually cite any available supplemental documentation. Supplemental documentation and NARA’s processing or verification materials are available on request. Please contact the Reference Unit listed in the description for more details.

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

For some Series descriptions, the same documentation applies to all the files. Therefore the same technical documentation files may be attached to multiple File Unit descriptions that are part of that Series.

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 descriptions.

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 there better copies of the documentation?

NARA has scanned the documentation preserved in paper format for online access. 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. Users may review the paper documentation in person at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, or order photocopies of them.

Are any of the code lists or other documentation available in a database or other manipulable format?

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.

A small selection of electronic records series are also available for online search and record-level retrieval via the Access to Archival Databases (AAD) resource at www.archives.gov/aad. For these series, one 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. Please contact the Reference Unit listed in the description for more details.



If you have any additional questions, please contact us at search@nara.gov.

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