The JFK Assassination Records Collection at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) was assembled from many different materials and sources. This page will first look at the different types of items in the Collection, then give an outline of where it all came from. Most of this information comes from NARA’s webpages on the JFK ARC, see the links section at the top of the page for the details. More pages and more links are coming here as well!
Evidence and artifacts
The JFK ARC is not just limited to paper documents. Some of the most interesting material includes the primary evidence from the assassination, with key items such as the gun that Lee Harvey Oswald used to shoot the president, bullet fragments recovered from the presidential limousine, clothing worn by President and Mrs. Kennedy the day of the assassination, the wallet Lee Harvey Oswald was carrying when he was arrested, and so on.1Here are photos of some of the evidence stored at NARA.
All of these items were acquired by the Warren Commission during its investigation of the assassination. Many of them are referred to as “Commission Exhibits” because of their use in the Warren Commission’s report. Non-evidential items were sometimes acquired later; for instance, the dress which Mrs. Kennedy was wearing when the President was shot was donated to the National Archives by Mrs. Kennedy’s daughter Caroline in 2003.2NARA ARC FAQ.
Finding a complete listing of assassination evidence and artifacts is a complicated task; I know of no complete or centralized register.
These include key photographic materials that are evidence of the assassination itself. The best known item is the Zapruder film, an 8mm film taken by Abraham Zapruder, which shows the actual assassination. This was acquired for the Collection by the Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB) in the 1990s. The Collection does not, however, include the JFK autopsy photographs. These are stored at NARA, but remain under the legal control of the Kennedy family, who carefully review any requests to examine them.
Another important item in the Collection is audio recordings from the Dallas Police Department, made during the Presidential motorcade through Dallas on November 22, 1963. These recordings were cited by the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) in its 1979 final report, which controversially found that the recordings provided evidence of a conspiracy to assassinate President Kennedy.
The Collection also includes many photographs that were created after the assassination as part of the official investigations, or that were donated by photographers and collectors. The Collection has photos of the aftermath of the assassination at Dealy Plaza and the murder of Dallas police officer J.D. Tippit, who was shot by JFK’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald.
Post-assassination audio recordings include the radio conversations between Air Force One and various military units and agencies as it flew back to Washington D.C. carrying the new President. There are also tapes of witnesses testifying at the HSCA hearings, CIA wiretap recordings from Mexico City, and recordings collected by New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, during his late 1960s investigation of the Assassination.
Finding a detailed list of all the audio-visual material in the Collection is also difficult. Various lists are available at the National Archives, but like the assassination evidence and artifacts, there is no specialized register for this kind of material.
With the important exceptions listed above, the Collection consists of written documents. NARA estimates that there are over 5 million pages of assassination-related documents in the Collection, one of the largest sets of historical documents in the National Archives. Collecting, indexing, and preserving these documents is the main reason the JFK Assassination Records Collection was established.
The main work of collecting and organizing these documents was done by the Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB), an independent federal agency. The ARRB was established by the JFK Assassination Records Collection Act (ARCA), the law that provided the legal basis and framework for the Collection. The ARRB functioned from 1993 to 1998, when it closed after completing its work. Oversight of the Collection was then turned over to NARA, and it is now one of the many important historical collections NARA manages.
The ARCA called for the collection of all “assassination-related” records, but left the definition of assassination-related to the ARRB. The ARRB adopted a very broad definition of what was related to the JFK assassination, and later expanded this even further to include materials not directly related to the assassination, but which “enhanced historical understanding” of the background and significance of the assassination. This has made the Collection a rich resource for those interested in the history of the early 1960s, but as the notes on this website often illustrate, the broad scope of the Collection is sometimes frustrating for those who are more narrowly interested in the JFK assassination and the investigations that followed it.
Types of documents in the ARC
This section and those below are based on three years of trying to find documents in the JFK ARC using the on-line database. I have not yet visited NARA in person. If you find any errors or inaccuracies here, please let me know!
ARC documents come in two basic types: the indexed and the unindexed.
An indexed document in the Collection has a standard Reader Information Form (RIF). This is a very useful identification aid, providing basic metadata such as how many pages are in the document, what date it was produced, what agency or person produced it, and so on. The RIF is attached on top of the document, and includes a unique 13 digit RIF number. This record number is very important if you want to order copies of documents in the Collection, or if you are writing about the Collection and the documents in it.
In most cases, the RIF data for the document you want can be found in NARA’s on-line database of identification aids, the JFK Assassination Collection Reference System (ACRS). This is an essential tool for research in the Collection.
Unindexed documents do not have RIF sheets. They do, however, have the kind of reference tools most other materials in the National Archives use. An important example is the Collection Register, which lists all documents in the Collection, indexed and unindexed, “at the general series level.” Extensive use of the register may require consulting an archivist who knows where all the boxes are located and what kind of stuff is in them.
Another important tool for the unindexed documents is a large set of finding aids for various components of the Collection. These give box by box descriptions of the records and documents available, making it much easier to locate materials than might otherwise be the case.
I have used various names to describe unindexed documents in my blog posts. Since these documents do not have RIF sheets attached, I often call them “non-rif documents” or “no-rif docs”. If you don’t like these names, stick with unindexed, but remember that this does not refer to word-indexing within a document.
Unindexed documents can be divided into three groups. The first group, the earliest records in the collection, are from the Warren Commission (WC). These became available, in part, soon after the Commission closed its investigation of the JFK assassination, over 50 years ago.
The second group, the most recent records in the collection, are the records of the Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB), which operated from 1994 to 1998.
The third group are records donated to the collection by private individuals. These span a wide range of time and document types.
The WC records are so extensive, and have been public so long, that the ARCA did not to require NARA to compile RIF sheets for each document, except for documents that had been withheld in full from the public or that had text removed (redactions) in part. The WC records are, in my view, the most important documents available for the assassination of President Kennedy. Because only a fairly small portion of the WC records are indexed, you are better off starting with something other than the ACRS to find materials from the WC.
The ARRB was the agency responsible for compiling the RIFs, so once they closed, there was no one left to do the ARRB’s own RIFs. Instead, NARA compiled a standard finding aid for ARRB records, skipping detailed RIFs. Even so, there are big chunks of ARRB documentation in the indexed part of the Collection as well, primarily liaison between ARRB and other federal agencies. Since the ARRB was in existence for about four years, it had very extensive records. For those like me, who are interested in the Collection itself, these documents are at least as important as the WC records.
Items in the third group, papers donated by individuals, are sometimes quite significant. Probably the largest and most significant set is the records of J. Lee Rankin, chief legal counsel for the Warren Commission. There are over 21 feet of records in 47 boxes and hundreds of folders. Despite the obvious relevance of this large supplement to the WC papers stored at NARA, I haven’t seen much use made of them. Historians interested in the Warren Commission will doubtless find many interesting things here.
Other private papers that have attracted more attention are the papers of Jim Garrison, the New Orleans district attorney who launched his own investigation into President Kennedy’s assassination in 1966 and wound up prosecuting a local businessman, Clay Shaw, for conspiracy to murder the president. There are several other equally interesting sets of material related to Garrison’s investigation, such as the papers of Clay Shaw and his lawyers.
Indexed documents in the ARC refers to records which had RIF sheets prepared and attached. I have also referred to these in my blog posts as RIF docs. Take your pick of terms, as long as the meaning is clear to you.
The indexed documents are the records which have attracted the most attention, especially since the 2017-2018 ARC releases at NARA. I hope this page has made clear, however, that these documents are not the only thing in the JFK Assassination Records Collection. They certainly constitute the largest component of the Collection, but crucial parts of the WC records and most of the ARRB records are not there.
As I mentioned above, indexed records have a very important tool: the ACRS, NARA’s on-line database of RIF data from the indexed records. Using the ACRS, one can get precise counts for all the types and sources of indexed documents in the ARC. These counts cannot be taken as absolute, however. I will explain below why there are limitations on the counts from the ACRS. Within these limitations, however, we can still get a very clear picture of what is in the ARC.
Here is a chart, based on the ACRS, that shows what the main sources of ARC documents are:
More links will go up as I begin writing pages for each of these four main document sets.
Much of this material was designated for the Collection by the text of the ARCA, which stated that the JFK ARC should include all records produced or collected by the major government investigations of the JFK assassination.
The two main investigations were of course the WC and HSCA. Sometimes one may see the ARRB referred to as a third investigation. This is not correct. The ARRB was charged only with collecting records of the assassination, not with investigating or reporting on the facts of the assassination.3Another link is coming soon on the ARRB that will discuss this misapprehension in more detail.
As noted above, the WC records are largely unindexed, since most of these were made public long before the ARCA was enacted. Most of the indexed documents in the Collection were produced or collected by the HSCA. The HSCA cast a much wider net than the WC, specifically investigating CIA and FBI performance, pre- and post-assassination. HSCA also considered the possibility that organized crime was involved in the assassination, and conducted an extensive review of FBI files on organized crime figures. All FBI and CIA files reviewed by the Committee are now in the Collection.
It is not the case that the ARRB simply assembled and released HSCA materials. ARRB conducted its own searches and interviews in pursuit of previously uncollected materials. Its work is described in detail in the ARRB Final Report, available on-line in several places.4One copy of the Final Report is available for download at NARA, another can be read online at the MFF website (membership is required to download documents). In addition, following the close of the ARRB, the ARCA remains in effect for Federal agencies, and as late as 2005 CIA has added newly discovered or acquired records to the collection.
A note on the limitations of the ACRS
At the time this page was written (January 2021), the ACRS is down for maintenance. If you insist on only NARA as your source, you will have to wait.5There is an excel sheet available from NARA with some data from the ACRS on it, but this file has many problems; see here for a note.
There is also a very useful alternative to the ACRS from the Mary Ferrell Foundation (MFF), a resource page which MFF calls the JFK Database Explorer. This is basically an interface to a copy of the ACRS scraped off the NARA website, but it includes a number of summary functions that are very useful for anyone who wants to do further research into the ARC records. I have used this resource extensively and it should be the preferred source for information on ARC records until the official ACRS is back on line.
When using the JFK Explorer, it is important to bear in mind that the ACRS, at least the version available before NARA began the latest maintenance cycle, was NOT a complete list of every indexed record in the JFKARC. For a record to be indexed, it must be housed at NARA and must have an attached or associated RIF. Not all RIF information, however, is available in the on-line ACRS. There are several notes on my blog that describe the reason for these gaps, which are sometimes surprising. For example, there are no indexed records from the U.S. Secret Service listed in the ACRS.6For a more complete list of Agencies that have records in the Collection, but are not listed in the ACRS, see here.
There are also sometimes gaps in the records of agencies. One example I have written about involves close to 1500 FBI records which were deposited in the Collection, but are not listed in the ACRS.7See my note here.
Such gaps in the ACRS have led to claims that NARA has somehow concealed assassination records from the public. These claims are simply untrue, and should not be taken seriously.
A different issue, that is sometimes confounded with these claims, is the withholding and/or release of information from documents in the Collection. Another page is coming up on this important but confusing issue.