Yes, we’re in business to copy records for you from the National Archives and Records Administration (“NARA”) but we encourage you to go to NARA yourself instead if that is practical. There’s nothing like getting your own hands on your ancestors’ original documents!
Following is our advice if you are planning a trip to NARA in Washington D.C. for the first time. (Some of the details will be different for other NARA facilities.)
BEFORE YOU GO
- Know what you want before you get there. Do your research at home and come prepared with a specific list of records that you want to see. When possible, your list should specify the Record Group (“RG”) in which each record is cataloged. The NARA catalog is online and – depending on what kind of records you want – so are a variety of third-party indexes at Fold3.com ($), Ancestry.com ($), and FamilySearch.org (free), for instance. Contact NARA through its History Hub, by phone (1-866-272-6272), or by email if you need help preparing a list of records for your visit. Or write to us if you still need help.
- Be sure that you’re going to the correct facility! Most 19th-century military records, including for the Civil War, are at the main NARA facility in D.C. (aka “Archives I”) which is the subject of this post. But some such records are online (in which case the original records are NOT available in D.C.) and some are at the NARA facility in St. Louis, Missouri. “Archives II” is in College Park, Maryland and holds most military records for World War I and II.
If you are unsure where to find your records, consult the Guide to Federal Records or contact NARA at least several weeks in advance through its free service, History Hub, by phone (1-866-272-6272), or by email. Or write to us if you still need help.
- Make sure it is open. NARA is generally open to researchers Monday through Friday, 9am – 6pm but some special limitations may be in place (e.g., COVID, see below). NARA may also close due to inclement weather or for other reasons. For the current operating status, check NARA’s Facebook pages and Twitter account or call 301-837-0700. Nationwide Federal government operating status updates are available on the OPM website.
- Know your limits. NARA will typically let you examine a maximum of 24 records per visit – including Compiled Military Service Records (CMSRs), pension files, and land records – but some other types of records (like Carded Medical Records) are not subject to this limit. Still, there is a practical limit to how much you can copy in one day. Some record types are typically larger than others. A CMSR may take as little as a few minutes to copy while a pension file could take an hour or more. So plan to copy a mix of record types and bring the details of more than 24 records in case you need to re-evaluate your priorities as time begins to run short.
- Prepare to manage your time. If you’re going to request more than a few records at NARA, then TIME will be your biggest challenge. Although you’ll know what records you want, you won’t know how many pages they contain or how long they will take to copy until you get there so…
- As above, do your research before you arrive. NARA has a series of free public-access computers on site but you should not plan to burn precious time using them.
- Have a good breakfast because you may have to skip lunch.
- Double-check the opening time (at this writing it is 9am) and plan to get there early in case you encounter traffic, parking problems, etc. If you get there early, there is an indoor bench where you can wait.
- IMPORTANT! Consult the NARA web site or contact NARA by phone (1-866-272-6272) or email to see if any special rules will be in place (e.g., during COVID) during your visit, including…
- the facility hours;
- the need for an appointment or advance consultation;
- the pull times;
- the number of records that you can pull in a day;
- the availability of copying equipment in the Central Research Room if you plan to use it (see below);
- the availability of the Innovation Hub if you plan to use it (see below);
- the availability of the shuttle bus if you plan to use it (see below).
WHAT TO BRING
- Your driver’s license or other government-issued photo ID.
- A quarter for the locker.
- Cash or credit/debit card for the subway if you plan to use it.
- Copy Equipment. Cameras and approved scanners are permitted. Flash photography and personal external lighting is not permitted. Personal copiers and auto-feed or hand-held scanners are likewise not permitted. Flatbed or overhead scanners must be of an approved type.
- There are a limited number of photography stations with special lighting in the Research Room but they are subject to availability and you can access them for only a limited time.
- There are a limited number of self-service photocopiers in the Research Room but they too are subject to availability and you can access them for only a limited time. You can use them to make paper-to-paper copies or to scan records and save the images on a personal flash drive. Any records that you wish to copy in this way must be approved by a staff member. Copies (paper or digital) are 25¢ per page and this can add up fast! See more details of self-service copy equipment HERE. Generally, your own camera or the Innovation Hub (see below) are much better options.
- (optionally) Cash or credit/debit card for vending machines and/or cafeteria.
- (optionally) A flash drive to be used with NARA’s copy equipment. Make sure that it has a large capacity because hundreds of photos can take a lot of room.
- (recommended) A cell phone or other camera with charging cable, A/C adaptor, and memory card(s) if appropriate, even if you plan to use other copying equipment. In the event of equipment failure, you can use the camera on your cell phone as a backup. Be sure that your cell phone or memory card(s) has plenty of unused space on it. Photos take up a lot of space!
- (optional) A small power strip if you have several pieces of equipment to plug in. This one is inexpensive, portable and contains USB plugs for your phone too.
- (optionally) Questions for the experts in the Finding Aids Room.
- Make a check list and double-check it before you leave home. If you forget something, there are few places to buy it within walking distance. The closest place that you could buy a flash drive, for instance, is probably the QVC pharmacy at 1275 Pennsylvania Avenue (about 4 blocks).
- As little else as possible.
WHAT NOT TO BRING
- Weapons. If you carry pepper spray in your purse, leave it at home or in your car. It should go without saying that guns, clubs, and blades of any kind (like pocket knives) are prohibited. If you have any doubts, then consult the official list of prohibited items here. Yes, spear guns and hand grenades are explicitly prohibited! (Like at airports, however, don’t joke about them to the security staff).
- Extra Bags. Security may open your bags, purse, etc. upon arrival and they will certainly do so when you leave at the end of the day. So don’t bring extra bags or anything that you don’t need with you. Lockers are available (see below) but they are inside the security perimeter.
- Paper. Keep your “To Do” list and research notes on your cell phone (or laptop if you bring it). If you must bring paper notes, you will need to have them stamped by the staff when you enter the Central Research Room and they will be inspected on the way out of that room and again when you leave the building.
- Smoking is prohibited throughout the building. You can bring tobacco products into the building but you’ll have to leave them in a locker. If you need to smoke, you’ll have to completely exit the building which requires signing out with building security and resubmitting to all of the security procedures upon re-entry.
- A second person. Each researcher must go through the security and registration procedures individually. Only one person is permitted at each desk and only one researcher is permitted to handle documents from each file. Appointments (if you make one) are for one researcher only.
- Minors. Researchers under the age of 14 are not permitted without special permission.
- Other. Food, drinks, pens, paper, purses, etc. (see below) are permitted in the building but not permitted in the Research Room. You’ll need to leave those things in a locker as described below.
The address of “Archives I” is 700 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20408. This NOT the main entrance to the Archives building where tourists go to see the Declaration of Independence, etc. It is a single non-descript door facing Pennsylvania Avenue.
- Parking. There are various parking garages within a few blocks of NARA but they sometimes fill up and availability in any particular one is not guaranteed. All-day parking will cost about $25 but many places have deals (~$15) if you arrive before 9am. Plan on a walk of several blocks with whatever equipment you’ll be carrying.
Consider the subway. To avoid the traffic and parking hassles, you may want to consider parking outside the D.C. beltway and taking the Metro (subway) to the “Archives” station on the Green and Yellow lines. Parking at the satellite subway station will cost about $8.00. The subway trip each way will typically cost under $6.00 and will normally take about 40 minutes. The exit from the “Archives” subway station is just across the street from NARA. (It is a busy street so cross with the cross-walk). Read more about the subway here or calculate your fare using the Metro Trip Planner.
- Shuttle Bus. NARA operates a free shuttle bus in both directions between Archives I (in Washington D.C) and Archives II (in College Park, Maryland). The shuttle bus is intended for staff but researchers may use it if space is available. The bus leaves hourly on the hour, 8am to 5pm, from each facility.
- Flying In? You can take a taxi or ride-share service from the airport. Distances to NARA in D.C. are:
- Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (“DCA”): 4 miles
- Washington Dulles International Airport (“IAD”): 28 miles
- Baltimore/Washington International Airport (“BWI”): 32 miles
- Security. To get access to the archives building, you will have to go through a magnetometer and your belongings will need to go through an x-ray machine. If you have a pacemaker or other medical condition that could be affected by the magnetometer, then ask to be screened with a hand-held wand.
- Sign in at the security desk. You’ll need your driver’s license or government-issued photo ID. You will be issued a visitor’s badge which must be clipped to your collar, lapel, or otherwise visible at all times.
- Enter the main room. Once you’re granted access, go through the double doors and turn left. Go immediately to the desk on the other side of the glass door to get your Researcher Card. You may be asked to go through a Powerpoint presentation, questionnaire, and/or registration process with one of the provided computers. Get through that process accurately but as quickly as possible because if you get behind several other people who are getting researcher cards for the first time, then you could be delayed by 30 minutes of more.
- Note the time. Under normal circumstances, requests for records (aka “record pulls”) have to be made by specific times. The first few pull times are typically 9:30am, 10:30am, and 11:30am. If the next pull time is imminent then do the next two steps in reverse order. That is, submit your pull slips before you go to the locker room. The reason is spelled out below.
- Go to the locker room. It is at the end of that same hallway. You’ll need a quarter (not two dimes and a nickel) to lock the locker and you’ll get it back when you leave. Drop off everything except (a) your notes about the records that you will be requesting and (b) the things that you will need in the Research Room. You can get in/out of the locker at any time.
- Submit your Pull Slips. A “pull slip” documents your request for a specific record. Each record (i.e., service record, pension file, etc.) requires a separate pull slip. Blank pull slips can be found at various places around the main floor as can staff or volunteers to help you complete them. Ask a staff member about where to put your completed pull slips.
- It is important to submit at least a few pull slips in time for the first (or next) pull. As described above, that means doing so before you go to your locker, if necessary. It may be awkward to deal with pull slips while you’re still carrying your coat and bags but the alternative is to waste an hour waiting for the next pull time.
- You can submit all of your pull slips at once but it is not wise to do so on your first visit. Since you won’t know how long it takes to copy each type of record until you get them, you should submit pull slips for only a handful of records and of various record types. Then, after assessing the average amount of time that it takes you to copy each file type, re-evaluate your priorities and submit some more pull slips of the types that you are likely to be able to finish before time runs out. There is no disadvantage to pulling too many records (within the limit set by NARA) but you don’t want to be left with only very large records and not enough time to copy them. And once your record limit has been pulled you can’t un-pull some and pull others.
- Be aware of the pull times – especially the last one.
- Get NARA’s special debit card if you plan to use their copy equipment for which there is a fee. Ask the staff for the procedure. Unused money on a debit card cannot be refunded.
- Optionally go to the Finding Aids Room. It will take 20 minutes to an hour for your first set of records to be pulled. You’ll need some time to set up your equipment but if you have a few extra minutes (or if you have questions about specific record types), familiarize yourself with the Finding Aids Room which is on the ground floor. There are many resources there and experts on each record type to tell you how to use them.
- Go to either the Innovation Hub or to the Central Research Room as described below.
THE “INNOVATION HUB”
- What is it? The Innovation Hub provides the space and scanning equipment for you to make copies of records. Any records copied in this way can be saved to your flash (USB) drive to take home. Those same copies will also be made available to the public on NARA’s catalog within a few months. Read more about the Innovation Hub here.
- No charge. Use of the equipment in the Innovation Hub is free of charge. That is not the case if you use self-service scanners in the Central Research Room (see below).
- How to get there. The Innovation Hub is on the ground floor, to the right as you enter the main room and then through the glass doors.
- Records will arrive there. You will submit your pull slips in the same way as described above. Tell the staff that you plan to use the Innovation Hub and the records will be delivered there. All of the rules for handling records (see below) still apply.
- The entire file. If you use this service, you will be expected to copy every page, front and back, that contains writing within each file.
- Check availability. Contact NARA in advance by phone (1-866-272-6272) or email to make sure that the Innovation Hub will be open during your visit and that scanning equipment will be available to you. Inquire especially about the hours in which it will be open because it may not be the same as NARA’s hours in general.
- Have a backup plan. If you arrive to find that the Innovation Hub is unavailable for some reason, the hours are unexpectedly limited, or there is no functional scanner for you to use, then your trip will be wasted unless you have a backup plan. You may be able to use the self-service scanners in the Central Research Room but they too are subject to availability and are expensive as described above. We recommend that you bring a camera (it could be a cell phone camera) to have as a backup.
THE CENTRAL RESEARCH ROOM
- What is it? The Central Research Room is where you can use your own camera or approved scanner to copy the records.
- How to get there. Your records will be delivered to the Research Room which is on the second floor. There are two convenient elevators outside the main room, as well as stairs.
- Bags. Laptop computers, hand-held wallets and coin purses are permitted in the Research Room but are subject to inspection. Laptop bags, purses, backpacks, briefcases, and other large containers are not allowed. Leave them in a locker.
- Writing material. Paper, pencils, and bookmarks are provided to researchers. Pens and notebooks are not allowed.
- Quiet! Turn off the ringer to your cell phone and disable sounds on your laptop while in the Research Room.
- Refreshments. No food or drink (including water, gum, and candy) is allowed in the Research Room. There is a restroom and a water fountain on the same floor. There are vending machines and seating area in the basement and they are always available. They have snacks and drinks and accept dollar bills and coins. There is a small cafeteria in the same place. It has hot & cold food and accepts cash or credit cards but it closes by early afternoon. To get there, take the elevator to the basement, then turn right and right again to go down a long hallway. Then follow the signs.
- Security. Each time that you enter or exit the Research Room, you’ll need to check in at the security desk, present your Researcher Card, and submit to an inspection of anything that you are carrying.
- Your desk. You will be directed to a researcher table which will be your desk for the duration of your visit. Each desk has an individual light and one unused power outlet. If you need a second outlet more than you need the light, then you can unplug it but be sure to plug it in again when you leave. Free wireless internet is available. A better alternative may be to bring a small power strip as described above.
- Come and Go. You can exit the Research Room in order to use the restroom, access your locker, or go to the cafeteria, for instance, but you’ll need to check out and in again at the room’s security desk.
- One at a time. All of the records that you have requested will be kept behind the staff desk. You are allowed to check out only one file at a time.
- Protection. NARA is understandably very strict about the handling of archival documents. They must stay on your desk (e.g., not held in the air for an extended period of time or in your lap), in the original order in which you found them. That is, you are not permitted to sort the documents even if a different order makes more sense to you. (You can sort your copies later). You may use documents from only one folder or box at a time. When you remove a subset of documents from a box, you must put a paper bookmark (provided) in their place so that they can be returned to the right place. You may not separate documents that are bound together but a staff person may be able to help. If a document does not lie flat, the staff can provide a plexiglass sheet that you can lay over it to hold it down. For more complete instructions for handling archival documents, see this page.
- Security. If you need to leave the Research Room (e.g., for the rest room), then you can put the documents back into their folder/box and leave it on your desk until you return. You can leave your personal property too but the staff is not responsible for their security.
- The lighting in the Research Room is, well, less than optimum for photographs. There are individual light fixtures overhead which can cause bright reflections in your photos. The same is true of the individual lights on each desk. Most of the light comes from the windows which means that it comes from an angle, changes as time passes, and gets dimmer into the late afternoon. All that you can do is be aware of the issues and make the most of them. Review your photos to make sure that the documents are legible or retake them. As noted above, there are a few photography stations in the Research Room and they have professional photographic lights but access to them is limited. Remember that flash photography and personal lighting are prohibited.
- Note taking. Handwritten notes may only be taken in pencil and on paper or index cards that are provided or approved by NARA. Your note paper should not be placed on top of an archival document. Tracing of documents is not allowed. Obviously, writing on archival documents is strictly prohibited. In fact, don’t even use your pencil as a pointer.
- Keep track of your copies so you’ll know the source of each document when you get home. Recommendation: The pull slips that you submitted have multiple colored “carbon copies”. When you receive a file, it will be accompanied by the green copy of your pull slip. Take a photograph of that page (or scan it) before you copy the documents within the file. The copies of pull slips will serve as dividers in a long stream of photographs and each one will identify the subject of the subsequent photos.
- Watch your time. You won’t be allowed to start copying a new record when less than 30 minutes remains before closing.
- Our best advice: Resist the temptation to read the documents while you scan them. You’ll get easily distracted and precious time will be lost. There will be plenty of time for reading and analyzing records once you get home.
- Don’t leave anything in your locker, even if you plan to be back the next day. Overnight storage is not permitted.
- Take some blank pull slips with you if you do plan to return for another visit. You can fill them out in advance and bring the completed forms with you on your next visit, thereby avoiding the rush to meet the first pull time.
- Expect to be searched. All of your belongings will be searched when leaving the Research Room and again (along with those that had been stored in a locker) when you leave the building. You’ll be required to open your laptop and all of the pockets in your bags.
If you find this list useful or if you still have questions, then please let us know in the comments below.
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