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Archival Survival Guide Part 1: Getting Started at the National Archives

May 27, 2010

The National Archives Building in College Park, Maryland.

Contrary to popular cultural depictions, the National Archives is a tremendous (and accessible) resource for anyone conducting research in a field involving the government.  Whether your interest lays in Elvis or U.S. nuclear weapons policy, the Archives probably has a document (or several thousand) for you.  Conducting research at the National Archives is also an important preliminary step if you are interested in obtaining documents through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) or Mandatory Declassification Review (MDR).  You can save government time and your money by making sure that the documents you are seeking aren’t already available at the National Archives.

This is all well and good, but the vast array of documents, photographs, and audio/video records along with unfamiliar and seemingly arcane procedures and organizational systems can easily overwhelm even the hardiest researcher.  Following in the footsteps of the FOIA Tips series, we hope to provide a guide to performing research at the National Archives.  We can’t promise swift success, but we can provide some guidance and a few tips to make your research a bit easier.

Napoleon Bonaparte famously said that an army marches on its stomach.  One could easily say that a Frenchman discussing gastronomy is worth listening to, but not particularly relevant to the issues at hand.  Of course, Napoleon, being a great leader, knew that the simple, often-overlooked, logistical issues were the most important ones to address.

Before setting foot in the National Archives, you need to figure out what you want to get out of your trip.  To their credit, the National Archive and Records Administration (NARA) has put together a good website for answering that question.  If you are ready to move past the “why” of your visit and into the “how,” then check out the electronic resources accessible through the National Archives website (step three from the last internet link).  You can save yourself an immense amount of time if you can find what you are looking for before arriving.  If you are lucky, you might find electronic copies and avoid the field trip altogether.

When you are ready to get your hands dirty at the National Archives, here are some tips for your visit.  A great deal of our archival research is conducted at the National Archives and Records Administration facility in College Park, MD; however, most of these basic tips are going to be similar at all National Archives locations:

  1. Get started early.  The reading rooms open at 9:00 A.M. and getting an early start will allow you to take advantage of all the document pulls throughout the day.
  2. Make use of the free Archives staff shuttle.  On busy days, you may have to yield your seat to NARA staff, but usually there is plenty of room.  It departs from both the College Park and downtown DC locations at the top of the hour and usually takes around 45 minutes to reach its destination.  All transportation options can be found here.
  3. If you are visiting the National Archives for the first time, you will need to register and go through a brief researcher orientation.
  4. Bring a quarter.  Since you are restricted in what you can bring into the reading rooms, storage lockers are available and they will return your quarter when you are done.
  5. Any papers that you want to bring into the reading rooms must be inspected and stamped.  NARA provides blank paper and pencils for note-taking, but it’s generally a good idea to write down any information you need to find the materials you’ve scouted out.
  6. Laptops, cameras, and scanners need to be registered before you can bring them into the reading rooms.  We highly recommend bringing your own equipment to copy any materials since black and white copies at the National Archives cost 25 cents per page.  Also, remember to obtain a scanner/camera pass in the reading room and get a declassification sticker if you are looking at formerly classified records.
  7. Don’t be shy.  The staff is there to help with any questions or problems you might have.  You can also preempt any on-site queries by contacting NARA before your visit.

With these tips, you can focus your efforts and worries on the actual research, as opposed to the pesky logistics.  Next time, we’ll take the next step in conducting research at the National Archives by exploring how to request materials.  If you have any questions about the National Archives or archival research, in general, please leave a comment and we will answer it to the best of our ability in a follow-up or a future posting.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. emily w. permalink
    August 1, 2011 5:51 pm

    This is such a good resource. I cant tell you how many people I have referred it to! Thank you for putting this together!

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