The Library of Congress (LOC) and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) are the two heavyweight, information repositories in the United States. On a grand scale, these two organizations show the difference between a library and an archive.
The Library of Congress is first and foremost a research and legislative library for the U.S. Congress. It is the main copyright agency of the U.S. and one of the world’s greatest research centers, collecting materials across all disciplines. The library not only collects books, but it is also has the largest collection of maps, atlases, sheet music, recordings, tv shows and movies. Even though the library serves the U.S. Congress, it is also open to the general public.
The National Archives are tasked with preserving the history of the United States by managing federal records. They strive to save all important government records, safeguard the papers of every president since Herbert Hoover and set guidelines for preserving government records. The materials in their collections are focused on primary source materials, the stuff that historians use to write and make sense of our history.
I’ve never made it out to either the LOC or NARA (which has branches throughout the U.S.) but I recently visited the NARA website to do some of my own research. I’m interested in the Office of Strategic Services (O.S.S.) the precursor to the C.I.A. which operated during World War II. The director of the OSS was Willam J. (“Wild Bill”) Donovan and his Director’s Office Files are kept on microfilm at NARA. Specifically, I want to see the documentation in the files on Poland during World War II and the Polish underground in particular. This set of records was fully declassified by the CIA in 2002.
Since I’m the one usually receiving and answering reference requests, it was a novel experience for me to send a question to the National Archives. We’ll see if I can get a hold of copies of these documents. Stay tuned…