Genealogy Research at NARA: Top 5 Tips from Professional Genealogists
Many of the record collections that genealogists most frequently use when researching families who lived in the United States were created by local governments, either at the town, county, or state level. The documents these jurisdictions generated are indispensable to our research, but they were not the only jurisdictions to create crucial record collections—the federal government also created many useful documents. Some of these documents (like the federal censuses) are readily available to researchers online, but many are only available through The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). In this blog post we will discuss how to best prepare for a trip to NARA or one its branches, what record types are housed at NARA, and how to make the best use of your time at the nation’s preeminent archive.
The National Archives and Records Administration was established in the 1930s to centralize the preservation of government documents that were previously housed by the agency that generated the documents. Although this centralized system was not developed until the 1930s, the holdings date from the very beginning of the nation in the era of the Revolutionary War. This means that NARA may preserve documents pertaining to earlier generations of your family. NARA preserves documents that tell the nation’s story—everything from the Declaration of Independence down to the federal census enumerations. Because of the vast number of documents the government generates, it retains anywhere from 1% to 5% of the documents created each year. To help house all these documents, NARA has eighteen Federal Records Centers (separate from the primary facilities in the Washington D.C. region) throughout the United States. There are centers in California, Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Washington. These facilities may have the records you need, so be sure to double check before making travel plans to go to the main archive.
Preparing for a Research Trip to NARA
A research trip to NARA will be enhanced if you follow our top 5 tips to prepare in advance:
1. Organize your existing research in a way that makes sense and is easily accessible. This means having all copies of documents pertaining to the ancestor or ancestral family properly labeled and in one folder—digital or hardcopy. It is also best to have the research that can be done from home completed before arriving at NARA. You don’t want to waste precious research time at NARA looking up censuses when that could have been done before the trip. Another aspect of being prepared is having a list of exactly what records need to be searched at NARA—ideally only records that can be ONLY obtained at NARA. This list should be prioritized so that you get the most important records first and your losses are minimized if you didn’t get to everything before the archives closes. While preparing for the trip, use the finding aids (catalogs, record guides, collection inventories) available on NARA’s website to obtain call numbers for the appropriate collections. A research trip to NARA will be more productive the more prepared you are.
2. Consider logistics. Being prepared for a trip to NARA also includes understanding more logistical type aspects as well. For instance, determining where the closest parking is in advance will save you time driving around trying to find a parking garage. Similarly, public transportation from your hotel to the archives may be an option. Be sure to check the hours of operation and holiday closures. Also noteworthy is that some of the NARA facilities across the country only pull records at certain times. For instance, the facility in College Park, Maryland, only retrieves records at 9:30 AM, 10:30 AM, 11:30 AM, 1:00 PM, 2:00 PM, and 3:00 PM on weekdays (it is closed on Saturdays and Sundays). They will not make exceptions if you miss a pull time.
When you arrive at the archive you will need to plan time to obtain the Research Card issued by NARA. This entails providing photo ID (such as a driver’s license or passport), completing a contact form, and reviewing the Researcher Orientation presentation. NARA suggests that this process takes approximately fifteen to twenty minutes. The Researcher Orientation will familiarize you with policies such as no flash photography, pens, or markers. Because policies change from time to time or from facility to facility, it is wise to call or email ahead of time to be sure of current research policies. When calling or emailing, it is also helpful to ensure that the facility has the records that you want to search.
Lastly, always check NARA’s website for policy changes or other important information. Also keep in mind that many NARA documents can be ordered from home. Civil War pension application files can be very useful in genealogical research and can be ordered and shipped to your home. The first 100 pages of a Civil War pension application file costs $80.00. Each page after the one-hundredth page is an additional $0.70. If you live far away and need just one file, it might make more sense to just pay the fee and order it. However, if you have several application files that you need to copy (or if you will be doing additional research) it may be more cost effective to travel to the archives and photograph the files yourself.
3. Remember the Golden Rule. When researching at NARA it is a good idea to keep a positive attitude. Being kind, respectful, and appreciative of the facility and the archive’s staff will go a long way. When you are kind to the staff, the staff will be more willing to help and go out of their way to assist with your research.
4. Be aware of copying and photographing policies. Copying and photographing policies vary from one NARA facility to another, so be sure to call ahead and ask about specific procedures. Most textual documents can be reproduced, but sometimes because of copyright or preservation issues the facility may restrict copying or how reproductions can be made. The copy fee depends on the type of material and the facility. For instance, at the NARA facilities in the Washington D.C. area, self-service paper to paper copies are $0.25 each and copying from microform to paper is $0.40 per page.
5. Meet the genealogy research log—your new best friend. While researching at a NARA facility, organization is key to a successful trip. Perhaps the best way to stay organized is to keep a research log. The research log should contain a citation for each document that you request while at the archives—it will be an authoritative record of your research. The log should also contain brief notes—a quick summary of important information—for each document. Because your time at a NARA facility is often limited, you want to get as much done as possible while there. This means that, if possible, valuable time should be spent requesting documents and making copies or photographs of each one rather than reading through the details of the documents. The copies or photographs of the documents can be closely examined and analyzed later.
The National Archives and Records Administration is an institution that can truly benefit your family history research. Everything from military records to land records can be obtained from NARA, and these types of records can add life and details to the history of your ancestors. Using the tips we’ve provided here will enhance your research trip to NARA and help make it a great experience for you.
If you need documents that you think may be housed at one of the NARA facilities, we can help! Our professional genealogists and onsite agents can visit any location to obtain records about your family. Because we have experience researching there, we know and use all the tricks for an efficient and successful visit. Contact us today to discuss how we can help with your research!