OPA combines several NARA resources: several series from the Access to Archival Databases (AAD) which contains online records, the Archival Research Catalogue (ARC) which contains descriptions of records, and the archives.gov web pages. Not only does the OPA prototype combine most of these databases, it displays results an extremely user-friendly way, especially if you're searching NARA for genealogy information.
Searching the OPA Prototype
In the middle of the Online Public Access page is the standard search engine box. Surrounding it are videos, photos and a sidebar with more information on OPA, but it's simple enough to just start with typing a search term in the box. In my case, I type in "Biedermann," a surname of my husband's German ancestors who settled in Ohio in the 19th century.
Results are grouped in four sections: online holdings, record descriptions, archives.gov webpages and "authority files," which contain biographies and histories of organizations. What most people are looking for – online holdings—is the first group displayed. If a digital copy of the record is available, it appears front and center. "If we have the thing itself in the catalog, that's what everyone wants to see right away!" explains NARA on the website. Type in "United States Constitution" to see an example.
For my "Biedermann" search, there are no digital copies, but there are four online holdings. One from the 1954 National Register of Scientific and Technical Personnel and three from Defense Contract Action Data Systems records in the late 1990s. While these Biedermanns may very well be related to the line I'm researching, these records aren't very relevant to my current search.
No census records appear in the online holdings section. For a census search, an online service that has the census digitized and indexed by name is the most convenient way to search.
The next group of holdings are record descriptions only. They include alien case files, which are a relatively recent addition to NARA's holdings, and military enlistments. Many of the descriptions include enough information for me to eliminate these Biedermanns from further study; the alien case file description for Ernst Biedermann, for example, tells me he listed Czechoslovakia as his country and was naturalized in New Jersey in 1965.
If I want to view any of the records being described, each description includes the local and NARA identifier, the NARA location of the record, the contact information for that branch and any special instructions. For example, if I had wanted the alien case file of Barbara Biedermann, whose case file description includes a 19th century date of birth but no other information, I would have to request it from NARA's Central Regions Branch at least 48 hours in advance.
My results from the archives.gov webpages include a name index to naturalizations for the District of Kansas from 1948 to 1970, records of the U. S. Allied Commission for Austria's property control branch from 1945 to 1950, and several Interallied and Interservice military agencies records, which sum up intelligence reports from WWII.
While the Konrad Biedermann naturalized in the District of Kansas may be a relative, the other two results are in the wrong time period to be any of the Biedermanns I'm looking for. That doesn't stop me from reading through them, however. If there is a downside to OPA, it is that with so much information, the typical family researcher with a weakness for history can get easily sidetracked.
Some may argue that the other downside is that my search hasn't brought me any material on the Biedermanns I'm looking for. But of course I haven't finished my search – looking up only one spelling and then abandoning the quest is a beginner mistake. NARA suggests I look under "Biermann," while I am surprised they don't suggest the obvious alternate spelling "Biederman."
I get 124 and 80 results, respectively, for these two alternate spellings. Fortunately there is an advanced search that lets me filter by geographic location, as well as a timeline on the side that lets me view records by different decades.
And even if I strike out with my line of Biedermanns, there are still more surnames to try. Should any of these not bring any results, the results page includes a list of possibilities with links to more resources. And with NARA adding more files constantly, I will be making regular trips back to the OPA search engine to see if there is anything "new" for my searches.
Over a million records from NARA's Electronic Records Archive (ERA) are available through OPA. Although not all of the AAD is included in OPA yet, more records from AAD are currently being migrated over. Although the streamlined OPA will eventually replace the AAD, this will not happen for a year or two, so it is worth a researcher's while to check the AAD separately as well.
In the meantime, NARA is asking the public to contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org to give their opinions on the OPA prototype.