Yet another list: NARA20

As noted earlier, NARA’s on-line database of metadata for documents in the JFK Assassination Records Collection (AKA the ACRS) has been down for maintenance since the end of September 2020.

In its place is a 27M excel file which NARA describes as “listing every item in the [ACRS] database to facilitate researcher access to the information in the system” (see here). Unfortunately, this is not correct. Instead, the file is just another partial list of ARC files and metadata, which I now dub NARA20.

A partial list

How partial is NARA20? The copy of the ACRS at the Mary Ferrell website lists a little over 319,000 records.1See here. This copy of the ACRS dates to about 2015, so call it MF15.

The excel file now available at NARA, however, has 170875 rows. The two last rows are blank, so it is actually 170873 rows. This is about 53% of the records in MF15.

The number of fields per row/record is also different. Each row now divides the subjects field into five separate fields: subjects, subjects2, subjects3, etc. Each row also has four additional fields labeled cntsu, cntsu2, etc. I have not yet figured out what these are.

Following is a list of how many rows of records are listed for each agency in NARA20.

PrefixAgencyNARA20 countMF15 count
104CIA341185493
111DIA103139
119DOS51085155
124FBI91439148411
135HPSCI272302
155SEC22
165USIA9191
174BMS224224
176NARA-JFK437785
177NARA-LBJ218619
178NARA-FORD14151416
179NARA-WC77327750
180HSCA5957160129
181NARA297297
182DOJCIV6584
186DOJCD3461006
187EOUSA6463
188DOJ22
189NARA7676

*See here for the agency abbreviations.

As the table shows, NARA20 is far from a complete copy of the ACRS. In addition to lacking most of the CIA records, it is also missing almost a third of the FBI records, and many agencies with records in MF15 do not appear in NARA20 at all.

Old content

In addition to omitting metadata for almost half of the records in the ARC, metadata for records which ARE present in NARA20 often differs from MF15 metadata. These differences do NOT represent recent corrections. Instead, a closer look shows that NARA20 actually provides a very old copy of ARC metadata. The clearest indication of this is the “Last reviewed date” field. The table below shows a comparison of number of records reviewed per year from 1992 on.

Review yearNARA20 recordsMF15 records
19923277332097
19937848995087
19944730849835
1995359811351
1996314608
199714962
199867358
199916327
200078
20023
2003563
20047784
200522
200660
20071

As the table shows, NARA20 review dates goe up to 1996, but there are only three records listed as reviewed in that year. In addition, while the numbers of records reviewed in NARA20 and MF15 are roughly the same from 1992-1994, NARA20 has only about a third of the records reviewed in 1995 that MF15 does. This suggest that NARA20 is basically a copy of the ACRS dating back to early 1995. Saying anything further would require a closer look at both MF15 and NARA20, which I don’t have time to do now.

Disk 119-10002 unveiled

Another interesting difference about NARA20 is that it has 492 rows of metadata that are NOT present in MF15. This metadata is for records from the Department of State (DOS). It all comes from one disk of metadata not previously available on line: 119-10002.

119 is the “agency number” for the Department of State. Each agency was given a set of numbered floppy disks to input record metadata, which it would then pass on to NARA. If you check MF15 using the JFK database explorer (here), you will see that the DOS records there have no disks 10002, 10008-10011, 10014, 10018-10020. NARA20 provides the metadata for the missing disk 10002. Most agencies’ disks have a maximum of 500 records on them, so this new material must represent almost all of the metadata on disk 10002.

What documents did this metadata come from? It comes from two files: numbers 39-141-122 and 39-141-046. 39-141-122 is mentioned in a memo by ARRB analyst Ronald Haron (available here). Haron identifies it as a file from the DOS Office of Security. Looking at the MFF copy of ACRS, we can see that the next DOS disk, 119-10003, continues with a number of other documents from 131-141-122. These documents are 1964 and after. The documents listed on 10002 are all from 1963 and before.

Note that none of documents listed on 10002 were released by NARA in 2017-2018. This means they were released in full long ago. The only delay was in registering them in the ACRS. Disk 119-10003, on the other hand, had several records which were withheld in part until April 2018. These were mostly copies of FBI reports on Mark Lane done in 1964, when Lane was crisscrossing Europe to bang the drum against the Warren Commission, months before it released its report.

Conclusions

It seems that NARA20 is a very stale copy of the ACRS, going far back into the history of the Collection. Anyone interested in serious research into the Collection should stick to the JFK Database Explorer at the Mary Ferrell website.

Why was this old, old copy of the ACRS posted at NARA? Perhaps it was an early backup of the ACRS that just happened to be handy. I would like to be more charitable, but it is hard to understand why a more current version of the ACRS was not provided.

The fact that it includes one disk of metadata for State Department documents not present in the much more current MF15 version is also quite puzzling. Was this metadata later removed because of major errors? Or did it somehow get lost during a later update to the ACRS? If I get any further word on this, I’ll post here.