More on the “old RIF numbers” at Mary Ferrell

[First posted on June 28, 2018, at]

This post is a continuation of my April 2018 post on the “old RIF numbers” formerly used in the JFK Assassination Record Collection (ARC) at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

This ID system is no longer used at NARA, but there are still many documents using it in the important on-line version of the ARC at the Mary Ferrell website.

For those who want to get maximum use out of the MF collection, matching up the old IDs with the current IDs can therefore be very, very helpful, as this post explains.

For others, however, this post will probably have little of interest. Caveat lector.

RIFs old and new

The act which created the ARC, the 1992 JFK Assassination Records Act (ARCA), required NARA to “prepare and make available to all Government offices a standard form of identification or finding aid for use with each assassination record subject to review under this Act.”1ARRB Final Report, p. 186 It further required the National Archivist to “ensure that the identification aid program is established in such a manner as to result in the creation of a uniform system of electronic records by Government offices that are compatible with each other.”2Ibid.

In compliance with this requirement, NARA created the RIF, short for “Reader Information Form”. The RIF has 17 fields for metadata concerning the record it covers, and a unique 13 digit identifying number, the “RIF number”.3I have seen NARA documents which refer to the RIF as having 23 fields rather than 18; I am not sure why their count differs. It is usually attached on top of an ARC document as a cover sheet. As a convenient shorthand, I’ll call all these documents “RIF docs.”

The ARCA requirement to create finding aids was limited, however, to federal government records which were not in the possession of NARA when the ARCA went into effect, or which had text redacted and were therefore not open in full for public inspection. The most obvious example of records which do NOT meet these criteria is the documents from the Warren Commission’s investigation of the JFK assassination. These have been in NARA’s possesion since the 1960s, and most of them have been open to the public for over 50 years. This is why most most records from the Warren Commission do not have RIF finding aids, despite being an integral part of the ARC.4There were some records from the Warren Commission which were not open in full when the ARCA was passed. All of these previously redacted documents DO have RIF forms, and the redacted portions were processed for release according to the ARCA.

Other examples of ARC records without RIFs include documents from Jim Garrison’s investigation of the assassination, which resulted in the trial of New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw for conspiracy to assassinate President Kennedy. None of these documents have RIF forms either. Overall, however, documents without finding aids make up only a small percentage of the total JFK collection; they are far exceeded by documents for which the ARCA required a finding aid.

The Mary Ferrell collection of ARC documents includes a huge number of both RIF docs, such as the CIA 201 file on Oswald, and non-RIF docs, such as records from the Warren Commission and Garrison investigations. The MF website states it has 101,113 documents from the ARC collection available on line.5 I originally took this to refer to the total number of documents on the site, but after taking a hard look at documents counts at MF, I believe that the figure of 101,113 documents refers specifically to RIF docs, and does not include any of the thousands of non-RIF docs in the MF collection.

In addition to both RIF and non-RIF docs, as my previous post explained, the MF collection also includes a huge number of documents which use a different form, labeled “NARA Identification Aid.” This form, by my count, has 32 fields, and uses a different form of identifying number: a 35 character string which consists of a date-time string followed by a 6 digit number. (See my previous post for several examples of these.) These forms are only used for CIA documents.

This is not a third set of distinct documents. Instead, it turns out that this form was produced by the CIA when it began processing its records for the ARC, all the way back in 1992. Based on the date-time strings, the forms in the MF collection were created between May 1993 and January 1995. This CIA form was later replaced by NARA’s RIF; the old forms were then removed from documents in the ARC, and the new RIF forms were added in their place.

Why do so many of these forms remain in the MF collection? I believe this is because they were still in use at the time these documents were acquired by groups such as the Assassination Archive Research Centter (AARC), who in turn provided them to MF.

In my previous post I called these older forms “old RIFs” and the id numbers on them “old RIF numbers”. Since the function of the form was the same as the RIF, I will continue to use the name “old RIF” to refer to this earlier type of finding aid.

Old RIF doc count

Getting a count of old RIF docs in the MF collection is challenging; my current count is about 23,300. This is a much larger number than I estimated in my previous post; recall that the MF Foundation’s estimate of their RIF doc total was 101,113, so this potentially increases the size of the MF collection by 20 percent.

These documents are distributed in the MF collection as follows:
HSCA segregated collection: 18,819
Oswald 201: 3653
HSCA microfilm collection: 880

The 23,300 figure includes duplicate numbers; accounting for these, the total number of unique old RIF numbers in the MF collection is about 22,600. There were a fair number of typos in the old RIF numbers which I have corrected to the best of my ability.

Matching old RIFs to new RIFs

As the previous post noted, it is possible to match the old RIFs to the new RIFs. The 35 character old RIF number for these documents was not just dropped. Instead, it was moved to the Comment field of the RIF form, together with the “box number” and “vol/folder number” on the old RIF. I have now found some documentation for this move.

ARC record 104-10331-10342 (dated 27 June 1994) is a discussion of changes NARA requested to the “JFK Database Extract.” Item 6 on the list notes “NARA wants the date time user stamp removed from the ID aid. This will require a modification to the application.” Item 8 notes “NARA would like the box number and folder information prefixed to the comments field. This will require a modification to the application.”

ARC record 104-10331-10343 (dated 28 July 1994) notes that as a result of a 25 July meeting, it was decided to “Move date/time ID number to Comment Section along with box numbers and folder information (#8).”

Based on this, I thought it would be possible to match all of the old RIF docs to the new RIF docs. It turns out, however, that this is not possible. I was able to match only about 21,300 old RIF docs to their new RIF counterparts.

One reason for this is that some of the CIA documents in the ARC have redone the date-time string in the comment field. An example of this is MF docid 95842. This old RIF doc is titled “RPTS ON ACTIVITIES TRAVEL OF THE OSWALDS”, and its id number ‘1993.05.17.17:29:39:000065’ This can be identified as ARC record 104-10001-10015. The current version of this record was released on 26 April 2018, and the comment field is OSW7 : V32 : 20031124-1016188.

How do we know that the these two files represent the same record in the ARC? Merely eyeballing them is NOT adequate. There are far too many duplicates in the ARC to safely claim that two documents have the same RIF number simply because they are identical in appearance. The reason we can say these two documents ARE the same is that there is an earlier release of 104-10001-10015 in the MF collection (docid 49995). In this earlier release, the comment field is OSW7:V32 1993.05.17.17:29:39:000065, exactly matching the ID on the old RIF doc 95842.

Why did the date-time string change in the later release of this record? Apparently, this was one of a set of records that were reprocessed by the CIA in the period 2003-2005,6See the NARA press release from December 20, 2004 and these new date-time strings reflect the date of this reprocessing.

Trying to match up old RIF and new RIF records where the date-time string has changed is a mind-boggling task. I have managed to match about 500 of them, and in theory it may be possible to do it for all of them, but at this point I don’t really believe it is worth further time and effort.

New totals for CIA records in the Mary Ferrell Collection

Even without the unmatched records, 21,500 is a lot of records. The MF website’s JFK Database Explorer, which is based on the NARA’s Assassination Collection Reference System (ACRS), gives a total of 85492 CIA records in the ARC. It gives the total number of CIA records in the MF collection as 52314.

The figure of 52314 does not include ANY of the old RIF docs, as far as I can tell. We cannot, of course, simply claim that all 21,500 of the old RIF docs that I was able to match up as new additions to the MF collection. The old RIF docs include a large number of documents that duplicate new RIF documents also on Mary Ferrell, as the examples in the this post and the previous post show.

But, as the excel file linked to in my last post also showed, there are a huge number of old RIF docs that are NOT available as new RIF docs on MF. Thus, the old RIF docs significantly expand the total number of CIA documents available from the MF collection.

At this point I can only provide very rough counts on exactly how many more CIA records the old RIF docs add to the collection. An estimate of 14,000 more records is probably close. This would represent an increase of about 20% from the 52,314 Mary Ferrell has already indexed, to around 66,000. I sent a note to MF on this a while ago, but haven’t heard back from them. Looks like another DIY project. Converting my current database tabulation to an excel sheet is not high among my priorities now, but if you are interested in such a list, leave a comment.