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Since 1970 Asian American Curriculum Project, Inc. - Books for All Ages May 2003
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A Visit to the National Archive (Part 1)
By Philip Chin

As part of our effort to honor Asian Pacific American Heritage Month this May AACP staffers Leonard Chan, Mas Hongo, and I visited the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) - Pacific Region. For this month we decided to try to find whatever information exists about our immigrant ancestors. In later articles we'll keep you posted as to how we go about this process so that you can learn from our experience and try it yourself.

The center is located at 1000 Commodore Drive in San Bruno, California, near the Golden Gate National Cemetery. The purpose of the archives is to preserve and provide access to valuable, non-current Federal records with historical, legal, or fiscal value. Only about 2% of all Federal records are saved. Among the few items saved are original census records, immigration records, military draft records, federal land documents, and federal court and legal documents among others.

We met four of the staff at the center. They were:
Daniel Nealand, Director - Archival Operations
Shirley J. Burton, Regional Administrator
David Piff, Senior Archivist
William Greene, Archives Specialist
Among the collections of particular interest to Asian Americans are the immigration records. Mr. Greene brought several original document files for us to examine. Some of these documents included photos, affidavits, legal testimony, letters of recommendation, and transcripts of interrogations that Asian immigrants had to go through before being accepted or rejected from entering the United States. Ironically the most complete and detailed records of any immigrants were kept on the Chinese because of the requirements of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. These requirements were so detailed as to include incoming and outgoing ship passenger lists as well as the normal documents one would expect in immigration records. Despite our current concerns of terrorism, it seems like more detailed and complete immigration records were kept in the 19th Century than in the 21st Century. For genealogists and family members this depth of information provides an unparalleled opportunity to trace ancestors or to catch a glimpse of a distant relative. In some cases the only photographs known to have been taken of some 19th Century Asian immigrants are contained in their federal immigration records.

Some of the documents are in very poor condition due to their age and the high acid content of 19th Century paper. These vulnerable papers have been placed in acid-free folders to slow their deterioration. Some photographs have almost completely faded into whiteness. Among the things we discussed with the archivists were the practical issues of storing and keeping such old records intact. Files are kept in temperature and humidity controlled rooms and away from light as much as possible. However, it is still impossible to stop the steady deterioration of paper. We also discussed the practical limits on what can be done to preserve these records. First, the cost of transforming all the paper records into microfiche or microfilm is prohibitively expensive. The Chinese immigration files alone contain hundreds of thousands of individual documents and photos. Multiply that by the number of other immigration documents, federal court documents, and millions of other federal documents that date back to the 1850s that are also contained in this single archive and you get a small sense of the huge problem. Second, there is no guarantee that any modern form of recordkeeping will still be in use many years or even a few years from now, especially those kept in digital formats. For example, some NASA electronic documents of the 1960s and 1970s are now essentially lost to history because the computers and the human programmers that could open them either no longer exist or have long ago been retired. Document preservation is difficult no matter how it is handled.

All of the fourteen National Archives regional facilities across the nation face critical storage problems. The US Congress appropriates money to build archive space based only upon the current needs of some given year, not on future needs. This means that space that was just sufficient for document storage in 1974 when the center opened are severely congested today in 2003. Saving 2% of federal documents each year translates into tons of documents that must find space somewhere. Sadly, this is the situation faced by many libraries and archives across the nation. In 1998, the center in San Bruno floated the idea of moving the immigration records out of state to clear room for other documents. Only the strong resistance by the Asian American community kept this move from happening. Because of the Asian American community's continued strong interest there are no foreseeable revivals of any such proposals.

Access is fairly easy at the federal archives. If you are doing research in the archives you must fill out an application and show some identification to get a pass that is good for one year. The facility has pay machines for the duplication of documents. For photographs, you can have the archive staff send the pictures out to a professional paid photographic duplication service. If you prefer, you are welcome to bring your own equipment with you. Equipment such as digital cameras, camcorders, scanners, and laptop computers are allowed, but arrangements and approvals must be secured in advance.

Most of the material at the archive can be used without issues of copyright infringements or privacy concerns. As a result, many of the users of the archives are writers and documentarians. Privacy restrictions apply to documents that contain personal information about living individuals. Such documents are normally restricted for 75 years.

To start a search for someone in the federal records, be prepared to provide any bit of information that you can find. Any federal documents or federal identification numbers such as related to Social Security, draft registration, or the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS.) can be particularly useful. Mr. Greene described finding an unknown number on the back of a provided picture and matching that number up to the specific immigration file even though the interested descendant spelled the ancestor's name wrong. Relatives can also be traced back to the street addresses they used in reporting themselves to the US Census. The Census taken in 1930 is particularly well detailed, listing children, jobs, and other interesting bits of useful information that could lead to other files.

It is best to gather this preliminary information before contacting the regional archive offices and arranging a visit. The number of archive employees and their time is extremely limited so you should maximize the benefit of their help by doing your own homework first. With this information the archive staff can get you started in the right direction and assist you during the course of your research. Mr. Piff particularly emphasized that archival research does not require advanced degrees. Ordinary people with little academic background show up all the time to do research and are often successful. However, the process of research requires patience and perseverance. If you find that you lack these characteristics, there are private organizations and individuals that can do the research for you, but be prepared to pay large amounts for such services.

Student groups are welcome to visit the Federal Archives but it recommended that these groups should be limited to 20 or less. In setting an appointment for the visit the class should have some unified research goal so that the staff can be prepared with relevant materials and specialized staff. Our archive staff hosts gave us an example of how they recently helped some students research the Italian Americans interred during World War II.

The National Archives and Records Administration - Pacific Region in San Bruno can be contacted at (650) 876-9009.

Home Page of NARA Regional Facilities Index
NARA - Pacific Region NARA's genealogy page

Up Coming Events

Here are some events that AACP will soon be attending.
Invite us to your events.
June 21
The Japanese Cultural Fair
Santa Cruz, CA
July 12-13San Jose Obon FestivalSan Jose Buddhist Temple
San Jose, CA
July 19
Books by the BayYerba Buena Gardens
San Francisco, CA
Other Event of Interest that AACP Will Not Attend
May 18
NAATA Presents the Asian American Documentary Showcase Kabuki 8 Theatres
San Francisco, CA
May 22 - Aug. 10
Meet the Artists
May 25 2pm
Asian Roots, Western Soil: Visual Poetry in Metal
An Emiko Oye and others exhibit
San Francisco, CA
May 29
6 - 7:30pm
Go For Broke Educational Foundation Presents the Japanese American WWII Veteran Panel Long Beach Public Library
Long Beach, CA
June 29
10am - 4pm
Asian American and Pacific Islander Information Fair Stern Grove
San Francisco, CA

Editor's Message

Hello everyone. Happy Asian Pacific American Heritage Month!

If you just signed up for our newsletter, thank you and welcome. We hope you find our newsletter of some value.

I'm writing this from the 2003 Association of Asian American Studies (AAAS) Conference in San Francisco. The conference seems well attended. Educators, students, publishers, writers, and other interested parties could all be seen mingling around in the exhibit room where we have a table.

Listed below and on our website's Link Page, are website addresses of publisher, writers, and interesting links found at the AAAS Conference and other past events.

It's been a fun past few weeks. I had a chance to literally rub elbows and talk with lots of authors, poets, filmmakers, an U.S. Congressman, and you the general public. The next few months will be a little slower for AACP as far as major conferences go. Please feel free to give us tips on any up coming events that we can attend. Bringing our collection of materials to the public and meeting you is a major part of our mission. We appreciate your help in filling our schedule. Thank you.

Leonard Chan

Give Us Your Feedback

Please feel free to send us your reviews, comments, and book suggestions. You can contact us at -

The Association of Asian American Studies Conference - Resources

AltaMira Press
Arkipelago Books
The Asian American Writers' Workshop
Asian Week
Chinese Historical Society of America
Coffee House Press
Duke University Press
John Hopkins University Press
Kearny Street Workshop
The Museum of Chinese in the Americas
National Archives and Records - Pacific Region
Rutgers University Press
Stanford University Press
Temple University Press
UCLA Asian American Studies Center
University of California Press
University of Hawai`i Press
University of Illinois Press
University of Washingtom Press
Websites to People We Met
Curtis X Choy - Documentary Filmmaker's website
Pam Chun - Author's website
Q&A with Pam Chun - Publisher's website
About Pam Chun - Publisher's website
• Daniel Lee - Japanese American National Museum
• Takashi "Thomas" Tanemori - Silkworm Peace Institute
• Suji Kwock Kim -'s website on Notes from the Divided County
Ishle Yi Park - Poet's website

Websites of Interest From Other Events We Attended
Cynthia Leitich Smith's Asian American Bibliography
US Congressman Michael Honda's website


The following books are discounted for subscribers to our newsletter. The discounts on these books end June 7, 2003.

China Connection
Finding Ancestral Roots for Chinese in America

By Jeanie W. Chooey Low
1994, 65 pages, paperback.

Chinese Connection is a wonder genealogical research guide for tracing ones family history. It gives you tips for collecting initial data, shows you where to find government documents, helps you read Chinese headstones, and much more. Even non-Chinese will find many of the tips, forms, and resources useful.

View Additional Information
ORDER -- Price $11.95

Growing Up Filipino
Stories For Young Adults

Collected And Edited By Cecilia Manguerra Brainard
2003, 298 pages, paperback.

"Cecilia Manguerra Brainard has collected a dazzling and impressive array of twenty-nine stories about the saga of what it means to be young and Filipino...But don't be taken in by the simplicity of the title. This volume is indeed about magic, mysteries, sadness, time, family, fear, and happiness of young adult Filipinos."
- Roger N. Buckley
Director of Asian American Studies Institute
University of Connecticut

View Additional Information
ORDER -- Price $18.95

The Chinese In America
A Narrative History

By Iris Chang
2003, 496 pages, hardback.

Bestselling author Iris Chang tells of a people's search for a better life-the determination of the Chinese to forge an identity and destiny in a strange land, to help build their adopted country, and, often against great obstacles, to find success.

View Additional Information
ORDER -- Price $29.95

Not Just Victims
Conversations with Cambodian Community Leaders in the United States

Edited and with an Introduction by Sucheng Chan
Interviews by Audrey U. Kim
2003, 299 pages, paperback.

Unlike the dozens of autobiographies published by Cambodians that focus largely on their victimization and experiences during the Khmer Rouge regime before fleeing Cambodia, these narratives describe how Cambodian refugees have adapted to life in the United States.

View Additional Information
ORDER -- Price $19.95

Ghosts for Breakfast

By Stanley Todd Terasaki
Illustrated by Shelly Shinjo
2002, 29 pages, hardback.

Set in a Japanese American farming community in the 1920s, this humorous ghost story is sure to find a special place in the hearts of children who struggle to overcome their fears.

View Additional Information
ORDER -- Price $16.95

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