Monday, October 24, 2011

Inside the National Archives

Liz of My Tapley Tree...and its Branches wrote about her experience at the National Archives and I wanted to give readers my take on it as well. It was a week day, so the line getting into the Archives was not that long. We had to walk through security first and foremost: put our bags through the metal detector thingie, empty our pockets, remove our coats if we had one, and walk through the metal detector, just like you do at the airport. Then at the desk, we show our picture id and hand over our equipment – cameras, scanners, and laptops – to the security officers who then record the serial numbers of our equipment on our “equipment receipt.” This receipt is good for 90 days and is presented to the officers each time you enter the Archives. Once our IDs are confirmed and our equipment is logged, we are given a yellow badge and then we sign our names into the log.

**Note: I have heard that renovations are currently going on at the Archives, so what I’m about to describe may or may not be standard procedure at the Archives during non-renovation times.

Upon entry into the Archives, we are greeted by a main desk and archivist who directs us where to go. For land records, we are directed to the “Finding Aid Room” to the left; for microfilms (AKA military Records), we are directed straight ahead. But first, as first time visitors, we are directed to the microfilm room where we are required to obtain our “Researchers Card.” The archivist there tells us to sit at a computer, watch a powerpoint presentation, fill in the form at the end, and then we will have our picture taken and a card made up. It took us about 10 minutes to complete this process on a Thursday morning around 10 am, however a peek back at the orientation room a little later on showed a bit of a back log of persons waiting to receive their researchers card, so make sure you get there early.

Land Case Files

We decided to go ahead and tackle the Land Case Files first because they required records to actually be pulled (ie, they are NOT on microfilm). I do not remember if we knew this ahead of time, or if the lady at the desk told us this when we first walked in. The reason it is important to tackle the original documents first is that these documents are only pulled at certain times of the day – 10, 11, 1:30 and 2:30 (and 3:30  W-F). And then you have to wait at least an hour for the records to arrive. So you have to plan accordingly. We walked into the Finding Aids Room right before 11, so we had to fill out our request forms in a hurry. Luckily the archivist on staff at the time showed us exactly how to fill out the forms. The BLM records we had printed out ahead of time had all of the pertinent information we needed to fill out the forms and we got most of our requests in by the 11 o’clock pull time. The other requests were submitted for the 1:30 pull time. The archivist reviews the forms and hands them over to another archivist who keys the information into the computer. Read my previous blog post on Day 1 at NARA – Land Case Files – Part 1 if you would like more information on ordering Land Case Files.

Military Records and Microfilm

While we were waiting for the Land Case Files to be pulled, we visited the microfilm room. Another Archivist greeted us here and we swiped our researchers card when we walked in. This was when things got confusing. You really have to go on the website to understand exactly what they have for military records onsite at the Washington, D.C. Archives and what is on microfilm and what is original records. Here are some of the lessons I learned about military records and microfilms:

  • Most of what NARA  has is already on and now, with the exception of the pension records
  • has more information than I found on NARA microfilm
  • The NARA microfilm is easier to use than
  •  NARA has microfilm of the 1812 pension index
  • The 1812 pension records are original records, not on microfilm
  • NARA has Revolutionary War Records and Pensions on Microfilm
  •  NARA has Compiled service records of Union and Civil War soldiers
  • NARA has Civil War Pensions of Union soldiers only (Conf. Pensions in State Archives)
Archivists or Reference Librarians, whatever you call them!

Before I move on to the Research Room I want to say a few things about the Archivists. I’m not sure if they are Archivists or Reference Librarians because each person rotates through each post every two hours. One advantage of this is that each person gains experience in each aspect of the entire library. However, one disadvantage is that you run the risk that you end up with no one person who is especially skilled in one area over another. The first person we encountered in the microfilm room told us to look our stuff up on the internet. This kind of frustrated me at first. Why did I drive 5 hours to visit a place to learn about records I could have easily downloaded from the internet? Well I learned later that he also neglected to tell us that there actually WERE more to the 1812 records than what we saw in the microfilm – that is, you had to actually order the 1812 pension records because they were original records! By the time we were told this, it was too late to get our order placed before the last pull time, but they assured us the records would be waiting for us in the Research Room the following morning.  So the moral of this story is that be sure to ask the next librarian or archivist, whatever they call themselves, the same question you asked the last person on duty, especially if you did not get the answer you were looking for!

The Central Research Room

Finally, we ordered Land Case Files and 1812 Pension records which we learned at the end of our first day were actually original records that had to be ordered and viewed in the Central Research Room. This is a room located in #203 on the 2nd floor accessible by the elevator or stairs. Access to this room and the rules around it were also confusing, but I will try to explain it the best I can.

First of all, you have to put your bags and coats and stuff in your locker before you go into the Central Research Room. You are only allowed to take in your electronics like the camera, tripod, laptop, scanners (flatbed only), pencil and looseleaf paper. Each piece of paper has to be stamped, so only bring in what you need.

You are greeted by a security officer who scans your researcher card and looks through your looseleaf papers and asks you to open your flatbed scanner. You then have to get your looseleaf papers stamped at the desk. If it is ok with you, they will staple them and then stamp just the back copy. **Note: I did notice that each archivist does things a little differently. Some will ask if it’s ok to staple your papers, others will not; some will staple them, others will not and just stamp every page. Just be aware of this. ** Once you get your papers stamped you find a researcher’s desk and wait for your name to be called. When your name is called, you go up to the desk and you sign one of the request forms you filled out (one form is usually good for the whole pack of them you filled out, if they are all for the same kind of record), date it and put the time on there. Then you sit back down and wait for the records to arrive. The archivists retrieves your records and brings the cart to your desk. You are allowed to place one box at a time on your desk and take out one record at a time. Use a place holder!

You can scan the document, photocopy it, or take pictures of it (without a flash). The photocopiers use your researchers card. So before you go up to the Central Research Room, stop at the cashier’s office on the first floor and put money on your researcher’s card. I added $10.00 to mine. Then when you want to photocopy, just swipe your card, make your copies and the money is automatically deducted. We could not figure out a way to tell how much money we had remaining on our cards, but if you go over, you simply pay the cashier the remainder of your balance.

Copies are made on the blue copy paper you may have heard about. Although it doesn’t really look blue and I’m guessing it won’t affect your ability to re-scan your copies once you are at home. (I have not tried this yet).

You are allowed to leave the Central Research Room at any time. They will keep your records for up to 3 days. You can keep your stuff at your desk for up to an hour’s time absent, so if you want to go get lunch and come back you can. You want to leave your looseleaf papers your desk so your don’t have to get them restamped.

Your copies are not allowed to leave the room unless they are put in a locked green bag! If you do have to leave for a few hours, then you can have them put in a locked bag and then have the archivists hold your bag for you until you can come back later. This is a nice convenience for its patrons. Once you are ready to leave the Research Room, your documents are locked in your green bag, your green bag is checked by the security officer, along with your looseleaf pages, and then you are allowed to leave. You can put your locked green bag in your locker if you have other research to do. When you are ready to leave the Archives, you collect all of your personal belongings from your locker and you go through security like you did when you came in. You give your locked green bag to the security officer and they open it and pull your items out, go through them one last time, then hand them over to you.

I think I’ve covered everything, but I’m sure there’s more that I’ve forgotten. I have included a couple of photos below from inside the Central Research Room #203. Please let me know if you have any comments or questions below. 

Liz looking for George Scwalls
Fellow genealogist Craig Scott at NARA


  1. It is a bit overwhelming, isn't it. Thanks for the detail you are sharing. Illuminating.

  2. Oh yes, but I think you pretty much get the hang of it by the first day. After that it is smooth sailing.

  3. I knew there were several steps to getting in, getting records and getting out but really didn't know what they were. Great info!

  4. Yeah, it was pretty confusing at first. I wasn't sure what I was supposed to do with the locked green bag at first. The 2nd day I just started asking more questions. The archivist kept giving me a hard time, asking me exactly what did I want to do with my copies????

  5. Thanks for sharing your experience, Ginger. I hope to make it to the National Archives before long, so it really helps to have some tips and inside information. Glad you had a successful trip!

  6. You're welcome Shelley! I hope to get some documents posted so people can see what I found as compared to what's on the internet...

  7. This is a fabulous series, Ginger. I've learned so much!

  8. Thanks for sharing your experience. Its been very interesting and Im sure it will be helpful if I ever make it there.

  9. You're welcome Michelle! Another thing I noticed is that each Archivist did things differently there, so who knows, by the time I go again, this may all have changed!