Washington & The National Archives

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First stop of my US research trip was Washington. It was dull, or maybe it only seemed like it, since I had hardly time to visit museums and other things around there. Usually I was at the National Archives main building in Maryland.

Washington looks a lot like Suzhou!

Washington looks a lot like Suzhou!

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From the National Archives building downtown there was an hourly bus for employees that I took to Maryland, roughly 40 minutes away. Once arrived what struck me most was the amount of security: standing in the entrance hall I could see 8 armed security guards, some of them standing next to the standard airport scanner and detection port. So different from the Netherlands and China. So how does the National Archives compare to other countries?

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Compared with the Dutch National Archives the US National Archives were underdeveloped on a technical level. Old fashioned forms and slips. It seemed that instead of digitisation the archives invested in another strategy and that is manpower. The whole main (2nd) floor was occupied by at least 25 employees, archivists that offered help and could help, and took a stringent look at how you dealt with archive materials. They were among the most helpful I have ever met in an archive.

Some of the archive boxes I encountered were literally relabelled carton boxes from the 1960s and 1970s, sometimes unopened since then, which showed by its haphazard contents. Certainly not the repackaged and inventoried boxes that I am used to. For finding aids and access you had to rely on copied versions of old yearly archive indexes from the 1970s. That being said I only looked at the archive of the Department of Transportation and its predecessors.

The basement of the National Archives featured an interesting exhibition about the inauguration of the building that had not been updated since the 1990s. Stylistically its photographs reminded me of the 1930s with its technically carefully positioned employees. A sentimental touch was that the photo of the entrance showed a white guard helping a black visitor gaining entry. Of course reality is the opposite. All guards are black, and most visitors white. Lets call it a reminder of the culture wars of the 1980s.

What? Whether it was a usefull trip to Washington? To be honest I did not find material that related directly to the DOT symbols. Which was a disappointment. On the other hand I learned a lot about the atmosphere in which the DOT symbols were developed.

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