KAC Vol. 2 Issue 2 Summer 1996 

 Searching R.I.F.s

Record Identification Forms on the National Archives online web page


Chris W. Courtwright

Internet Resources

Among other provisions, the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act (PL 102-526) mandated the creation of an electronic index to certain assassination-related material in the National Archives. (This data base is online at www.nara.gov/nara/jfk/jfk_search.html.) Not all material found in the assassination collection at the archives is included in the online index. Material in the custody of the archives that previously was open for research on October 26, 1992, the date the act was signed, was exempted from inclusion in the data base. Thus, many Warren Commission materials have not been included within the electronic index. Agencies that held assassination records were required to record information on Record Identification Forms (RIFs) for input into the master database. A number of the documents in the database are still under review by certain agencies or have been postponed from disclosure, either partially or completely.

The RIFs--Inconsistency and Spelling Errors

While the RIFs can be a valuable source of information and clues about certain documents, including those still being withheld, their maddening lack of consistency often requires one to do much additional detective work. When users sign on, they should be well advised to heed the warning that "this database is a compilation of entries input by the originating agencies. Although the National Archives and Records Administration provided guidelines for data entry, the master database is inconsistent in the terms used to describe records. Please keep this in mind when planning your database searches." Oswald is referred to on the RIFs in at least two different ways "Oswald" and "LHO." Ruby turns up usually as "Ruby," but also quite often as "JR." Another researcher tells me Clay Shaw often is referred to as "CS." State names are sometimes spelled out completely, are at other times abbreviated partially, and are at other times referred to by the two-letter designations.

While working on searching for all RIFs for FBI documents referring to a certain individual, I have so far stumbled upon four different spellings of his last name. (Extremely sloppy data entry, at best, on the part of someone at the FBI. Some may suggest a more sinister interpretation with respect to a perceived lack of cooperation with the spirit of the JFK law.) I found the subsequent spellings only after painstakingly combing through and doing additional searches based solely on certain dates and the relevant data series. In short, you have to do multiple searches for even the most basic inquiries while attempting to play detective and guess how many different ways words could have been misspelled or abbreviated.

The Logic of Searches

The order of operations also tends to matter when performing complex searches. Doing a complex search for "LHO" --or-- "Oswald" --and--"AZ" yelds a hit on 7 RIF records, all of them containing the "AZ" (two-letter designation for the state of Arizona) and either "LHO" or "Oswald". Doing a complex search for "AZ" --and-- "Oswald" --or-- "LHO" yields an entirely different result 10,750 hits. These hits are for RIFs that contain (1) both "AZ" and "Oswald"; and (2) All RIFs containing the term "LHO" (not just those also containing "AZ"). The computer search apparently does not begin to look down a string until at least five letters have been requested. Doing a search for all documents containing "Oswa" yields only 4 hits, all of them containing exactly that particular abbreviation of Oswald. A search for "Oswal" yields 25,222 hits from RIFs containing the "Oswal" any and all times such letters appear in that sequence. By the way, a search for "Oswald" brings up 22,518 hits; 4 less than "Oswal." The reason is that four RIF documents contain various misspellings; Oswall, Oswals, Oswale, and Oswal. These RIFs can be viewed by doing a search for "Oswal" --not-- "Oswald." As another example, a search for "unsubstantiated sighting" brings up hits on 243 RIFs. Doing a search for "unsubstantiated sightings" (plural) yields 37 hits, a subset of the previous 243 hits.

Hopefully, my trials and errors will assist you with your historical research in this new age of internet resources.


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