Accessing Family Treasures In The National Archives

by Kathleen Brandt | Jan 13, 2011

Visiting the National Archives Records Administration (NARA) in Washington D.C., or one of the regional NARA branches, can be a wonderful experience for any family historian or genealogist. However, if you're like me, finding the time to travel and research at a NARA location is often impossible.

The extensive resources offered by NARA needn't be neglected for time or logistics. Nearly 70% of its research inventory has been catalogued and indexed on their website at Archives.gov. This includes 9 billion pages of textural records, 7.2 million maps and charts as well as billions of machine readable data sets, and more. The NARA explains best the depths of their holdings:

The National Archives was established in 1934 by President Franklin Roosevelt, but its major holdings date back to 1775. They capture the sweep of the past: slave ship manifests and the Emancipation Proclamation; captured German records and the Japanese surrender documents from World War II; journals of polar expeditions and photographs of Dust Bowl farmers; Indian treaties making transitory promises; and a richly bound document bearing the bold signature "Bonaparte" - the Louisiana Purchase Treaty ...

The key to retrieving data from this resource-rich repository is to understand the ordering process using the new Online Public Access (OPA) search tool. Although there are other search aids within NARA, OPA has quickly become my favorite because it collates relevant topics from several sources creating a "one-stop-shop."

Using OPA

Identifying needed records for your research, by using the new Online Public Access (OPA) search tool has never been easier. A keyword search in OPA provides a listing of relevant materials. The top 10 query results are grouped by specific areas of interest (i.e. war or a location) under Topic Clusters. A query may be further refined by the Type of Archival, such as Architectural and Engineering Drawings or Textural Records. Plus, by using results from the query, the researcher can narrow holdings by a Date range (1900 - 1910), File Format (.gif), or a particular NARA Location of records (i.e. Archival I - Washington DC or Archival II - College Park, Maryland. Be sure to bookmark the OPA link www.archives.gov/research/search.


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OPA query results also list Online Holdings allowing the researcher to quickly access links to materials held within the Archives.gov website. For more information on online holdings visit Archives.gov.

Materials not currently available online are grouped under the Description Only category. Through this listing, a family historian may find textural records or microfilm rolls detailing activities of an ancestor's military squadron, accurate social history of an era, or a photograph that captured an historical event in action.

Initial Steps For Ordering Materials

Although there are some restrictions that prevent records from being copied (i.e.: preservation priorities, copyright), generally materials listed under Description Only can be reproduced. Be sure to reference the NARA Reproduction Fee Schedule for a complete price lists for copying and reproduction orders (Archives.gov).

There are different procedures for ordering, depending on the type of record; but all orders begin with the following essential steps:

  • Access OPA to identify the materials needed
  • Copy the detailed descriptions, location identifiers, and the source type (microfilm, textural records, film, or photographs) for the resources needed

A tip for a successful, stress free experience is to cut the title and entire description of any needed materials and paste it in a document file. You will appreciate this extra step, when filling out the various order forms, or creating a written inquiry.

Ordering Microfilm and Reproductions Online

Microfilm publications at the NARA have been favored by genealogists for their personal libraries. And now, the NARA can digitize their microfilm publications onto a DVD in addition to duplicating a microfilm roll. Once armed with the microfilm publication and roll numbers, you are ready to order your copy.

To expedite an order for microfilm publication or reproduction of a record, (i.e. military pension, passenger arrival), you can submit your request online. Common genealogy requests forms - Federal Land Entry Files, Eastern Cherokee Applications - may be found on the Need an Order Form page. For all other microfilm publication orders there is a Reference Tool to guide you through the ordering process. Another advantage of ordering online is the ability to track the status of your order.

Visit the Archives.gov website for more information on the microfilm ordering process.

Ordering Textural (Paper) Records

Textural records, for the most part, are not online, but the NARA will provide copies of preserved documents. To achieve the best results it is recommended that you include the complete description and document title, as well as the Record Group and any other location identifier (Box Number, Series, etc.) from the OPA Description Only link. A Textual Archives Services staff member will mail a price quote based on the size of the file.

Email your textural records request to archives2reference@nara.gov or fax your written request to 301-837-1752. A request may also be mailed to the References Section, Textual Archives Services Division, NARA. NWCT2R, 8601 Adelphi Road, Rm. 2400, College Park, Md. 20740.

Ordering Cartographic and Architectural Records

Many genealogists and family historians are interested in land surveys, explorations and settlements, historical maps of foreign countries, ship plans, and military campaigns. Others may be submerged in researching the vast extent of Indian lands and maps covering Indian treaties, removal policy, and reservation settlements. Whatever your need, know that the cartographic and architectural records are very valuable to family research.

When accessing OPA you will notice that the catalog descriptions for these records are grouped by series and encompass a variety of topics. So, here are a few pointers for successfully ordering reproductions of these records:

  • Specify your exact topic and research goal to the Cartographic and Architectural staff. This will allow them to assist you in properly identifying the ordering information needed. To expedite this step, email is recommended, carto@nara.gov, but of course a letter will suffice.
  • Request an ordering packet from the Cartographic and Architectural staff. A package containing the lists of vendors and price sheets authorized to make reproductions will be mailed to you. Reproduction orders for these records must be placed through an authorized vendor.

For more information, visit Archives.gov.

Not Computer Savvy?

Although the NARA has emphasized streamlining the ordering process and eliminating the amount of paper received daily, not all researchers prefer this method of ordering materials. An alternative to email, fax, and ordering online, is to mail in your requests to Customer Service. The NARA staff will not perform extensive searches, so be sure to include as much detail as possible in your type written letter to Customer Service, NARA 8601 Adelphi Rd, College Park 20740-6001. Allow 4 weeks for a response letter that may list resources to further your research.

Easy as 1-2-3

The top five records used by genealogists are census, military, immigration, naturalization, and land records. With the footnote.com, Heritage Quest, and ancestry.com partnership programs some of the NARA data and documents of genealogical interests are already available through these subscription based services. However, additional materials to further your family research project will most likely be found by perusing and retrieving resources from the National Archives.

Retrieving research materials and family treasures from NARA can be summarized in three easy steps: 1) Access the Online Public Access (OPA) interface tool for a listing of available research resources 2) Copy title, full description, record type and location identifiers needed for ordering 3) Submit an order to retrieve your family treasure.

More Information

More information on the National Archives holdings for family researchers may be found at http://www.archives.gov/research/genealogy/start-research/faqs.html.

To keep abreast of changes, developments and activities, you may wish to visit the Genealogy/Family History Channel on the National Archives NARAtions blog at http://blogs.archives.gov/online-public-access/.

The NARA offers genealogical workshops nationwide. A listing of these workshops may be found at http://www.archives.gov/research/genealogy/events/index.html.


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