I do archival research in the Washington, DC area, finding and digitizing responsive records and can often deliver them to clients within 24 hours.
This is how I got started:
Some fourteen years ago, I was asked by the Washington correspondent of a major newspaper to find some historical records at the National Archives for a potentially important story. I had worked with that newspaper in the past, undertaking historical research through the Freedom of Information Act, but upon arriving at the National Archives' facility in College Park, Maryland (herein NA2) I was overwhelmed. There was so much material I didn't know where or how to start.
Luckily for me there were experienced professional staff Reference Archivists. These are professional men and women who know the filing systems of the scores of government agencies whose files are deposited in the national archives throughout the United States. Without them, I would have not gotten anywhere. Even with their help, it took me two long days to find the records the newspaper was looking for. However, within hours of making digital copies of the responsive records, I was sending digital versions of them over the still-young Internet. The resulting story made it to the next day's front page. Soon the newspaper asked me to look for more historical records on other subjects at NA2. One thing led to another and I was recommended to a series of academics, journalists and authors to find and digitize more records, not only at NA2, but the National Archives downtown facility, the Library of Congress and other repositories around Washington, DC. Click here to see descriptions of those archives.
While doing this work I realized that several of the people working around me at NA2 were “independent” professional researchers* – and that was exactly what I was doing. Deciding that I could use my recently-learned experience, I eventually signed up on the independent researchers’ page on the National Archives website. Since that time, I have researched many types of records in various media for many clients. It is some of the most interesting work the world has to offer.
My educational background is mainly in science and scientific photography. However, politics and history have been an ever-present part of my life. The 1980s and early 1990s found me covering the Central American, Peruvian and Mexican (Zapatista) conflicts as a war correspondent working mostly in photojournalism. Upon my return to the United States I had several jobs, ranging from the coffee business to commercial fishing in Alaska and finally as a “webmaster” for a quasi-governmental regulatory entity in Washington, DC. A yearlong John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur grant got me back working in the field in Latin America and also immersed me in a complicated interdisciplinary mix of science and errant Congressionally-mandated US government policy.
Since then, I have worked as a freelance writer, a photographer (mainly for foreign embassies in Washington, DC - photographing foreign dignitaries at meetings with their US government counterparts), as an International Policy Analyst at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), and, as stated above, as an “independent researcher” at the National Archives and various other sites in the Washington, DC metropolitan area. Since the MacArthur grant, I have received other grants from the Tides Foundation and two Soros-funded groups to do long-term research.
I seek records mainly for academics, authors and sometimes the news media. I also do investigative biography or genealogy.
My archival research ranges from the simple copying of known records in any media to searches for both specific and general subjects. One of my longer-term projects lasting several months researched just about every aspect of the color “Olive Drab” for an American specialist. The search took me to three archival repositories – the National Archives in downtown Washington, DC and College Park, Maryland as well as the USDA National Agricultural Library.
I also continue research on my “own” field - the relationship between governments and news media – which I write about continually. I prefer not to take on the projects of clients in this area to avoid complications and conflicts of interest when I publish. I also prefer not to work on legal cases.
On reproducing and my final product:
Being a professional photographer helps in getting some of the best images that one can get from records. Digitized color reproduction (scanning or photography) is always better than black and white photocopies because black and white photocopying often doesn't register all of the colors that may be used in handwritten annotations or stamps, for instance. Additionally, the color of the paper of the responsive records may have some important significance.
I use various cameras producing high-resolution images with moderate file size tailored to the client's needs. I use Adobe Photoshop Lightroom for post-processing. From there I usually output PDF files using Acrobat Pro or ABBYY software.
Some jobs are better scanned with a flatbed scanner than photographed. I use the Plustek A360 - the fastest scanner commercially available (it is no longer made). More details on “outputs” can be found here. There are scanner/photocopy combos available for copying at NA2, but these cost 25 cents per page.
Finally, I should add a word on the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and Mandatory Declassification Review (MDR) as an adjunct to research. I have been using FOIA regularly since 1996 (and later MDR) as an adjunct to research. These are essential tools, which require more space to describe than I have on this page. For details, please click here.
* I use quotes around the word “independent” because in reality we professional researchers are multi-dependent – relying on several diverse clients for our research projects and income, but we will stick with the common title.