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Discovering the Digital National Security Archive

December 4, 2009

It’s funny, when I first started pursuing a PhD in Cold War History [redacted] years ago, I never thought I would end up working at one of the organizations that started me on the path of being an unabashed document fetishist. But, when your dissertation topic is American policy toward Mongolia, it’s not like you can go to a traditional archive and expect Mongolia to figure prominently in the finding aids (although it does happen sometimes).

Published in partnership with Proquest, the Digital National Security Archive (DNSA) is an online collection of declassified and digitized US government documents, most of them acquired through Freedom of Information Act requests.  The DNSA is available through member institutions and libraries, which include research libraries around the world and many large federal government agencies.

The DNSA is the most comprehensive set of declassified US government documents available, organized in 33 collections, such as the Military Uses of Space, Kissinger Telephone Conversations, and Peru: Human Rights, Drugs and Democracy. All told, the DNSA contains over 500,000 pages of meticulously indexed and searchable documents. Compiled by our expert analysts, the collections cover the most critical world events, countries, and US policy decisions from post-World War II to the present. Together, these collections offer unparalleled access to the documents that made US history.

The great thing about the DNSA is the ability to simply put in keywords into the “Quick Search” and get what feels like a full-text search of the DNSA collections.  In fact, it is the extensive indexing that makes the search so nimble, so that diverse spellings and references are not lost in a traditional full-text search.  In my case, a search for the word “Mongolia” brings up 43 documents, each of them available to view through the web site or downloadable as a PDF.

But what if the scope of your topic is larger than Mongolia? Sure, you can narrow down your search by adding more keywords, providing dates, or choosing one or more collections. But what sets the DNSA apart from most other research databases is the complex and intuitive metadata that has been added to the collections. For example, you can narrow down the search by:

  • Author and/or Recipient: Want all the documents written by State Department official Roger Hilsman to Dean Rusk? Add their names in the To/From fields. Want to narrow it down to only documents that Hilsman wrote while he was Assistant Secretary for Far Eastern Affairs, but not Director of Intelligence and Research? Then specify that you only want documents created after 1963, when Hilsman was moved into the Assistant Secretary position.
  • Classification Level: Only want the hottest, most high-level documents? 20 categories of security classification are available, such as Top Secret, For Official Use Only (FOUO), Eyes Only, and more.
  • Document Type: Choose from over 312 kinds of documents. Perhaps you only want National Intelligence Estimates or just contingency plans. Want personal notes, but not diary entries? Making that kind of distinction is as easy as choosing a checkbox.
  • Document or Cable Number: Maybe after reading “FOIA Tip No. 2 – Decipher a State Department Cable,” you want to see if the DNSA has the reftels (reference telegrams) related to a document you already have. Go to the “Doc/Cable Number(s)” field and put in the cable numbers. For example, if you’re looking for “Vientiane 8887” (cable #8887 from the US Embassy in Vientiane), put in “008887” into this field.

This is just a quick look at how I’ve used the Digital National Security Archive to do my dissertation research. Having slogged through hundreds, maybe even thousands, of boxes of paper documents, I can’t begin to tell you how much I enjoy reading full PDFs of documents in the comfort of my own home, usually with a mug of hot chocolate in one hand.

Check with your reference librarian to see if your school or institution has a subscription to the DNSA. If it doesn’t, maybe you can suggest your library check out a free trial.

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