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The FBI's Virtual Reading Room

The FBI Reading Room
Pull Up a Chair and Browse through Historic FBI Records


FBI Records Management Division seal

What do Ayn Rand, Francis Gary Powers, Syngman Rhee, Anthony Quinn, and Dixie Lee Ray have in common?

Give up?

They are all part of historical FBI records...though for a variety of different reasons. One was unexpectedly helped by our Legal Attaché Officer in Rome in recovering his missing Lambretta motor scooter. One spurred a special request from the State Department for us to open an investigation in Washington, DC. One had his fingerprint confirmed after being shot down over the Soviet Union. One was named in a complaint by two prisoners who were wounded while trying to escape from a Washington State Penitentiary. And one corresponded with Director Hoover after hearing he’d described himself as an objectivist. And not necessarily in that order.

Interested in all the details? Just go to the Electronic Reading Room at the FBI’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) website. These files include some of the 20 new additions to the site, posted there for researchers interested in federal records on everything from Alcoholics Anonymous to UFOs.

Why are we releasing all these records? It’s the law. Following passage of the Freedom of Information Act, the Privacy Act, and some amendments to them, the FBI (with every other federal agency) began disclosing its records, upon written request, on a case by case basis...only blacking out information cited in the laws’ nine exemptions and three exclusions, which are largely designed to protect national and economic security and to protect the privacy of persons who appear in FBI records.

How many requests are we talking about? Hundreds of thousands...and still counting.

How many pages of records are we talking about? Don’t be shocked: millions...and still counting. After all, information is the business of law enforcement—writing down all those interviews and recording all that crime scene evidence.

Why a Reading Room? It turned out that so many people were interested in the same files that it just made sense to put them in a physical library at Headquarters for researchers to visit and use freely. But it was tough on researchers, who had to travel all the way to Washington and compete with others for the few chairs in what was generally regarded as pretty cramped space. When the Web evolved, we couldn’t wait to begin digitizing documents to create the current Virtual Reading Room, for all the world to access. Good thing too, as that also became law. Now we continue to expand it as resources allow.

So pull up a chair...and decide where you want to start: Spies? Celebrities? Gangsters? Violent criminals? Historical figures, issues, and events? “Unusual phenomena”? Or just start at the alphabetical index and get lucky.

Links: The Freedom of Information Act Website | The Department of Justice FOIA Website