Sunday, July 3, 2011

The National Archives, Washington DC

I have returned from vacation and my first trip doing research at the National Archives.
What advice can I give?

1. Prepare in advance exactly what it is you want to accomplish at the NA. Go to the NA website and look at what is available. This will let you plan and prepare your visit. Some things are not available at the DC site and archivists will suggest you visit or write to another facility. That can be a great disappointment when you have been anticipating your moment amongst the greatest deposit of federal information in the United States.

2. A free shuttle service is available to College Park, Maryland facility from the DC NA site, but it is about a 1-2 hour ride.one-way.

3. Be prepared to be searched, logged in and enumerated upon entry to the site. Then you will have to apply for a research card. Before being issued a research card you will be required to watch a short power point presentation and fill out a form. You will need this research card every time you enter a different room. You will also need to log in every time you enter a room.

4. The room where you watch the power point presentation and get your research card is a useful spot to get to understand the protocol of the place. Archivist/librarians and aides are there to help. They will generally steer you towards the computers to get all the preliminary information you need to access actual archives.  I wanted to see civil war records of an ancestor. Before requesting the records I had to know his company and unit number. I obtained this on their computers which brings me to ....

5. The program on the computer is ancestry.com. But not just your in-home version of it. This is an industrialized version of ancestry.com - like the difference between a jumbo jet and a cessna, a blender and a Vitamix, one rose in a bud vase, and two dozen red roses wrapped in cellophane and tied with a satin ribbon.

My friend who was with me subscribes to ancestry.com at home. She was able to find things on the NA version of ancestry.com that she never found in her home version. It just doesn't sound right to me, but it is so. My experience was similar.

5. All records have to be requested on a form and submitted. There are certain times when archives are pulled (obviously called "pull times"). These are listed on the NA website. You can request a record and if there is a significant wait before the next pull time you can leave the building and return later. You will have to go through the security procedures again.

6. Only certain things are allowed in the archive rooms. These are enumerated on the NA website. Lockers with a refundable 25 cent deposit are available to stow extra gear. No purses or camera cases are allowed. Be sure to not take anything that won't be allowed. You will just have to turn around and return to the lockers which are on the ground floor.
All personal papers will be stamped by employees to distinguish them from archive documents.

7. Upon leaving for the day, you may want to put all your papers into a "green bag". These are obtained in the reception room where you watched the power point presentation. Librarians will put your papers into a green bag and lock it. This prevents security personnel from having to search all of your papers on the way out. You give the green bag to security. They unlock it and return your papers to you.

8. If you don't understand anythiing - ASK! Personnel are more than willing to help and they understand that many people are new every minute.

9. Once your first day is over you will have a better idea of how things work and you won't feel so clumsy the next time. But if you only remember one thing from all this, go back to #1. Use the NA website and PREPARE!


How about getting to the National Archives. The National Archives is within easy walking distance of the train station. My friend an I were staying in Manassas, Virginia and took a Virginia Railway Express commuter train into DC. The round trip was $16.90. She had prepared with a map of downtown DC and found the National Archives was a straight walk of about 5 blocks north from the L'Enfant metro train station.

I had made reservations on recreation.gov for $3 to save us standing in line to see the other side of the National Archives where the founding documents of this country are housed in the rotunda area. We easily made our tour of the Declaration of Independence and other documents while our records were being pulled on the other side of the building.

It was fun and educational to go to the National Archives, but I understand now a little better why it isn't always necessary to go there in person. So many things are available digitally now, that much work can be done from your own home. I plan to go to the NA again, but next time, I will make sure I am much better prepared and with an exact plan of what it is I want to research.