End of an Era for FBI Files

The digitization of millions of FBI files that were stored for decades in vast repositories of file cabinets spells the end of an era for the files and for the FBI employees who managed them.

Video Transcript

Donna Ray, area manager, Criminal Justice Information Services Division

When I first came to the Bureau, where you see these files now, there were—and I was on the night shift at that time—but even on the night shift, there were probably two or three hundred people searching at all times in those files.

Of course on day shift there were a lot more than that.

At that time, a fingerprint card would come in. Depending on the date order would be when we processed it. The first thing it would do, it would have gone to a fingerprint examiner to have a classification entered.

They would look at all of the fingerprints, identify what type of pattern they were, and then they would convert that into the Henry classification, which is how our fingerprint cards are filed.

There would be a fingerprint examiner that would perform a search. They’d physically go out to the files. In that Henry classification, there’s a portion of it that’s called a head class, which is just like your primary classification, that will take you to the approximate cabinet in the file to begin your search.

So they would search the cabinets, locate a fingerprint card if there was one there on an individual that had been arrested previously. If there were, they would pull that print. They would make the comparison to see if it was IDENT or non-IDENT.

Once that was completed, it would go to the typing section at that time. And they would—if it was an identical print—they would have the jacket pulled, they would add that information manually into the criminal history record, and then prepare the responses to go out.

If it was a non-IDENT card, meaning that it was a brand-new arrest—we didn't have a subject previously to that—we would create a new record. And then those prints would go back to file.

If they were a new arrest, they’d go back to our criminal master file. If it was a print that had been IDENT-ed against a current record, we’d add that to the jacket. And it remained in there.

Currently, right now, we don't have anybody that does searching in the files. Everything’s been automated. Right now we’re preparing the files for destruction.

The employees that work in these files have worked here for years. You know, they take a great pride in what they do.

It’s sad, but it is really a dying art. Like I said, it’s the legacy system. It’s historical. It’s what the Bureau was founded upon, or built upon. The old Identification Division—you know, that’s what built the Bureau.

I’ve had a lot of people ask me, "Is it hard to give this up? Are you reluctant about what’s going on?" And I’m not. I’m very excited about it.

Yes, it’s been a good 40 years. I’ve been very fortunate to work at the Bureau this long. But I’m very excited about where we’re going in the future as well. It benefits our customers. It benefits everyone. It’s a very rewarding experience.

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