“What Are You Working On, Robert Gaugler?” Volunteer Edition!
In early December, the Archivist of the United States, David Ferriero, awarded Weidman Outstanding Volunteer Service Awards to three National Archives volunteers. Robert Gaugler was honored for his leadership of volunteer projects to make America’s military records more accessible.
What’s your name and where do you volunteer at NARA?
My name is Bob Gaugler, and I work at the National Archives at College Park that is also known as Archives II.
How long have you been a volunteer?
I have been a volunteer for just over 2 years, although I didn’t begin to actually do anything for the first several months after my initial training was completed.
Why did you start volunteering for NARA?
My wife got us both involved. We had called for information about attending the Ted Leonsis movie about the Nanking atrocities in World War II, and ended up talking with Becky Martin. She told us about the volunteer program and it just seemed like a great thing to do. My wife is now a docent for the tours at Archives I (A-I), and I have been working on mostly Vietnam era records at Archives II (A-II). Working with this material is a good fit for the “vast knowledge” of military bureaucracy that I gained in a 30 year career in the Navy’s medical research programs. It has really been a pleasant surprise to realize that knowing some of that stuff can still be valuable somewhere.
What project are you currently working on?
I have just started working on a project supporting the DocsTeach website. We are locating the actual documents that were used in previous education publications, so that they can be digitally imaged to provide for expanded availability and potentially easier use of the documents. The documents are currently only identified with a Record Group, so it can be quite an interesting quest to find the specific single document.
I also lead various tours for new employees and visiting groups through the A II facility, giving them background information on when and how it was built, its special architectural designs, and the setup of its staff office areas and research and record storage facilities.
What has changed since you started volunteering at NARA?
I haven’t really been working here long enough to see any real changes.
What’s your favorite project at NARA?
In my time at NARA, I have only really spent a significant amount of time on two projects.
The first involved identifying a portion of a group of Vietnam-era Marine Corps photographs that were being digitalized and made available on the Internet through a company named Footnote.com. For approximately 150 of this very large group of photographs, the ink on the photo caption was so faint that the identifying NARA number of the photo was not readable. Since without this number, a request for a photo found through a search of the Internet database could not be filled, my task was to find each of the unknown photo’s negative in the Still Pictures holdings. The negatives are stored in a cold room, so this task was “cool” in more ways than one. I successfully found all but two of the 150 photographs.
The second project was supposed to be very simple. Another effort to digitalize and make documents available on the Internet, it required three pieces of information to be manually entered into the database for each document. This information would be used to sort and retrieve the desired documents from the database. Unfortunately, during this process, the volunteers doing the entry found large gaps of missing documents in the database of scanned documents. Further review of the material showed that problems of missing, duplicated, and out of order documents were present throughout the entire database. The project was necessarily expanded to involve a document by document comparison of the database content with the content of the actual NARA holdings. In all, the contents of 118 boxes of documents detailing the various Army Unit Citations awarded in Vietnam were compared to the database content, discrepancies were noted and rescans of the documents were done to correct the database. The simple project took more than a year to complete, but it was one of the most satisfying in that we were able to ensure that NARA’s documents would all be there for veterans to use.
Why did you choose to volunteer at NARA, and what keeps you coming back?
I chose to volunteer because I thought it would be interesting to get to see some of the material that NARA has that normally one would never get to see. In our orientation, we were told lots of stories about people finding important, or just interesting, stuff they weren’t looking for. Besides, it was a lot more interesting than trying to play golf everyday, especially playing with my game. What keeps you coming back, however, is the realization of how valuable what you are doing is to NARA and to the country. NARA is really understaffed, and it is just not possible to do all of the things that should be done to make even a small portion of the vast amount of material more available to the people who need to see it. This year, from what I understand, volunteers contributed time equivalent to more than 20 full time employees.
What would you recommend to others who might be interested in becoming a volunteer?
We have recommended volunteering at NARA to several friends, and so far we have recruited two. One is now a docent at A I, and the other, a retired Veterans Administration lawyer, is working on the Civil War widow’s claims documents – files that are the predecessors to files he worked with in his time at VA. The main thing is that if you think you might want to volunteer at Archives I in Washington, DC, contact Becky Martin and at Archives II, contact Judy Luis-Watson and see what they need to have done. It is almost certain that one can find a project to which you can really contribute.
What has been the most rewarding part about being a NARA volunteer?
Mostly, it is the sense of getting something valuable done with your time.
How does it feel to be recognized by NARA for your outstanding service?
I was very surprised to be selected, as I have not been a volunteer very long, and the biggest accomplishment I have had is to have found a large error in the initial stage of a project and stuck it out through all the detailed work to get it fixed. I was happy to accept the recognition on behalf of my small group of volunteers who worked very hard for a long time on a meticulous and not very exciting job.
What other projects or hobbies are you involved in?
As I mentioned in one of the earlier questions, I do try to play golf whenever the weather is good, and also work out a bit so I can continue to walk when I play. The scores don’t get any better, but they are not any worse as yet, either. My wife and I also really enjoy traveling, and we try to go on at least one or two interesting trips a year. This year in February, we are off to see the headwaters of the Amazon in the jungles of Peru. Later in the year we will be joining some British friends on a bare boat charter on a canal in Alsace.
What’s the last book you read or the last book you loved?
I really enjoy reading, but it is almost entirely limited to non-fiction, and that mostly on history related subjects. I am currently reading “Decision at Sea” by Craig L. Symonds about the five naval battles that most influenced America’s history. The jacket for this book was in an office window on the second floor of A-II that I pass every time I go to the Volunteer office. I knew of the author, and it looked interesting. Each fall, my wife and I attend the Civil War Battlefield Tour put on by the Penn State Alumni Association, and Dr. Symonds was one of the faculty on a tour of Charleston, SC several years ago. These tours seem to be the source of many of the books I read. The last one I read was “Receding Tide” by Ed Bearss and Parker Hills about the Gettysburg and Vicksburg campaigns, which I found as a result of last fall’s tour of Vicksburg.