Edward A. Singer

How NARA Works

The National Archives of the United States of America     The United States National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has many regional facilities around the country but the primary facility is the Main National Archives on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC and the primary satellite facility in College Park Maryland.  Many records of important national significance (Such as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights) are maintained in the Washington DC location and there is a great visitor center there where these and many other important documents in our history can be viewed.  Also located in that facility are many of the older records from the pre-World War I era and these can be requested for access once researchers establish credentials that allow them to be pulled for research.
     Many textual records from most of the government agencies and military records and maintained in the College Park "overflow" facility which was established in 1985, but, contains records that also date back to the earliest years of our country.  Additionally, many records are contained in the Library of Congress and the Presidential Library system.
     You can visit the National Archives Website for complete information related to what is maintained and where it is generally available for the public to access.
     Most of the records in the NARA collection are not easily indexed for research and retrieval.  Since many of these records date back to the 1700s they were collected and preserved according to a "Record Group" convention, however, some have been microfilmed and many remain available for authentic research as original documents.  Many are very frail and must be handled with special procedures.
     Experienced researchers are able to track down the documents they require through the use of "finding aids" that have been compiled to generally point to the correct boxes, but often, it is then necessary to manually sort through hundreds or maybe thousands of pages within these boxes in order to find the documents that you require.
     Researchers are generally allowed to copy materials that they find; however, no original documents are allowed to leave the various reading rooms where they are viewed.  There are very strict rules which control these original documents and, often, you will be working with the first copy of the actual document and they may contain very well known signatures or marginal notes.  Documents may be scanned, photographed with digital cameras, copied on paper copy machines or viewed and copied from microfilm.  Researchers may use cameras and copiers supplied by NARA by obtaining a "charge card" and paying a per-page fee or the researchers may bring, into the facility, their own copier, scanner, or camera.  There are rules but they are easy to navigate.
     The usual procedure is for the researcher to decide which archive boxes they require and they submit a "pull" request which takes about an hour to process.  The archive representative will bring the requested boxes to you in the reading room and you are instructed on how you may proceed to use the materials.  All materials must be turned back in to the archives personnel prior to you leaving the facility.  It is possible to put a hold on documents for a few days if it requires time for you to complete your research.