For The Amateur Researcher: How to Master the National Archives


Even if you live in DC, you don’t always realize how many resources are at your fingertips. This weekend, I was reminded about a phenomenal resource – free to the public – known as the National Archives. I picked up a few handy tips along the way:

1. Come prepared. For your first visit, you should know your objective. Are you looking up your great-grandfather’s military pension record? Do you need to search through the 1896 immigration records? Have a clear plan, and do as much prep work ahead of time. On your first visit, you’ll start with a PowerPoint overview of the rules (see #3) and tips for using the Archives. Then you’ll get your very own “researcher card” (similar to a library card). Keep it on you throughout the building, as it is required for entry into most rooms. See “Plan Your Research Visit” on the Archives website.

2. Time it well. The National Archives have very specific hours that aren’t all that convenient for the regular 9-to-5’er. Basically, the staff only pulls records (on the hour) during the week. The Archives is open on Saturday, but they don’t pull records, and the building is closed entirely on Sunday.

3. Follow the rules. All of them. And there are a lot. Get really, really familiar with the Archives website, where you can see items that are – and aren’t – allowed in the building. There’s a convenient locker room to can store bulky bags and coats. When handling primary documents in the Records Room, consult the “What’s Allowed” located on the Archives website. To give you an idea of the level of security involved, just imagine you’re at the airport dealing with TSA.

All that to say, the National Archives is a remarkable place. If you have relatives who served in a war, it’s likely their records are on file. I’ve been twice now, and had the chance to read the medical records of family members who have served, and touch letters — these are truly primary documents. Now, don’t take my word for it: Go read my mom’s blog, GeneaJourneys, or start doing some research yourself!

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About Meg Biallas

Thoughts From A DC Intern Turned DCist. A twenty-something goes beyond traditional tourism to achieve Washingtonian authenticity.
This entry was posted in Civic Tech, DCist, For Tourists and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to For The Amateur Researcher: How to Master the National Archives

  1. Thanks for the shout out, Meg. It was great fun coaching you live from 700 miles away by phone, iChat and Facebook (all at the same time!) as you re-navigated the National Archives to look up more family records. An experience I’ll be talking about for some time!

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