Finally managed to pull off something I've wanted to do for a bit; a time-lapse video of what it's like at the Seattle branch of NARA. San Bruno is similar; I haven't been to the new Riverside one yet. NARA II in College Park is much different. Record types are divided by floors (textual, cartographic, film, photographic) and instead of the 8-15 the regionals can fit in they can handle maybe hundreds on the textual records floor. The nice thing about the regionals is that they're a lot quieter, and Seattle has one table off to the side that I could set up a camera at without getting one else in frame (a no-no without prior permission).
(Note - the video is a little wider than what the format of the Blog will allow... click on the "Researching at the Seattle Branch..." text on the top of it to open in a new window if you'd like to watch.)
What this illustrates is the basic process of looking for information and then capturing it. One box of records at a time on the table. One folder from that box out at a time, with it's position marked so that you return it to the same place. One sheet of paper out of that folder is allowed out at a time, so that there is less of a chance of the records getting mixed.
There is no text search. There is no google. There is simply page after page of paper that must be gone through some how. There are no document-feeder scanners; the presumption is that every document you handle is the last surviving copy, and thus you want to avoid destroying it with a feeder jam. Some people work around the slowness of a scanner with either a fast, expensive scanner or a good camera mounted in a camera stand, but I prefer to scan over camera as I don't really have a time constraint and the quality is much better. This is more of an issue with photographs than textual records, however.Research at the archives, while rewarding, does not happen at internet speed.