Declassified Documents: DDRS and DNSA

In the week that the full Pentagon Papers were released online, and following the announcement of a new collection added to the Digital National Security Archive, a post on finding and accessing declassified documents seemed appropriate!

Oxford has access to two online databases of declassified documents, the aforementioned Digital National Security Archive and also the Declassified Documents Reference System, both available via OxLIP+.  These two databases are complementary in that they both aim to do the same thing but have a slightly different approach. 

The Declassified Documents Reference System (DDRS) provides access to over 500,000 pages of declassified government documents. The bulk of the documents (as advertised) cover 1945 to the 1970s, however I have found documents there from as early as 1910 and as late as 1992.  They originate from many government departments and organisations: the CIA, FBI, State, Justice and Defense Departments, National Security Council and the White House among others. It includes all kinds of different materials – memos, cables, correspondence, studies and reports, and covers nearly every major domestic and international event during the period.

The Digital National Security Archive (DNSA) also provides access to over 500,000 pages of declassified documents, starting in 1945 and going right up to almost the present day for certain topics.  The main way in which this resource differs from DDRS is that it is organised thematically, with documents arranged into collections on specific areas or events such as Afghanistan, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War, or US military uses of space.  New collections are added relatively frequently, so even if your area of interest is not currently covered it is worth checking back periodically.   As with DDRS, DNSA includes a diverse range of document types and sources.

How to use the database: DDRS

 When you click through to DDRS from OxLIP+, you are brought to the basic search screen, which allows you to do keyword or full-text searches of the entire database. With so many documents to search, however, it can be difficult to enter search terms that are going to bring you back a useful (and not overwhelming) set of results.  I’d generally advise therefore going straight to the advanced search option, which gives you a lot of ways to narrow your search. 

At the top of the page you have the usual options to enter several search terms. Note that the default is to search keyword/subject, ie, the citation and not the full-text.  If you want to do a full-text search, you need to select full-text from the drop down menu.

Below the search boxes there are a whole lot of different ways to limit your search and ensure that you get really relevant results. The most useful one is the issue date, which means the date of the actual document itself and allows you to restrict your search to specific time periods.  Don’t confuse this with the ‘date declassified’, which will in most cases be much later.  Another useful limiter is the source institution, which allows you only to search for documents issuing from a particular agency if, for example, you’re interested in just the activity of the CIA or the White House etc. You can also restrict your search by document type, sanitization, completeness or number of pages.

The documents themselves can be viewed either as page images or as transcribed text. Page images is the default; to view the text, click on ‘view text’ next to the page navigation at the top.  What you can do with the document depends on which view you are in.  If you are viewing the page image, then you can download/print the entire document as a PDF.  If you are viewing the text, then you can print or email the text of the page you are viewing (but only that one page at a time).  DDRS also offers a fairly basic ‘mark records’ function, where you can create a list of specific records from your various searches as you go along to come back to. However, this is session-bound, so you can’t come back to it after exiting the database, and there is also no save/export function other than printing out the screen from your browser!  Within your session, it is also possible to view your search history and get back to earlier sets of results.

How to use the database: DNSA

As described above, documents within the DNSA are arranged into thematic collections, which can be accessed individually or in conjunction with one another.  Each collection also has a guide available, which provides lots of information about what it includes and any limitations, and are well worth taking a look at before you dive in to your research.

Depending on what you are looking for, there are several different ways to search the DNSA database.

Searching documents: Note that unlike DDRS, it is not possible to search the full-text of documents themselves. 

  • Quick search: From the box in the top left-hand corner. This performs a basic keyword search across all collections and is therefore likely to bring back a large number of hits.
  • Document search: This is the most useful search option for finding material. It offers advanced search options (keyword, name, date, document type) and the ability to select which collections you want to search – scroll down to find the tick boxes at the bottom of the page. You can therefore search only one, or a selected few, or the entire database as you choose and is the real way in which the thematic approach is beneficial as you’re only searching relevant documents from the off.

Background searches: These do not search the documents themselves, but provide background information and context to the documents.

  • Bibliography search: This searches the bibliography of materials used by the researchers at the National Security Archive when compiling the collections. It can therefore be useful as a background bibliography of the subject area, and will point you on to relevant books and articles, but is not designed to be comprehensive. 
  • Chronology search: This gives you a useful summary of key events pertaining to your search.
  • Glossary search: Allows you to search for basic descriptive information about significant individuals, terms and acronyms.

Documents can be viewed as page images or downloaded as PDFs, as with DDRS. However, DNSA also allows you to export citations both as plain text and directly into RefWorks and EndNote as well as print and email.  Another excellent feature is the cross-referencing, which allows you to click through to find further documents for people, organisations and subjects listed in any record.  As well as tracking your search history allowing you to mark records to come back to within a session, DNSA offers a ‘my archive’ feature where you can sign up for an account and save records and documents to come back to another time.

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