Every year tens of thousands of people descend into the heart of the Nation’s Capitol to get a glimpse of the country’s most scared documents. If this were an episode of Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader?, you would be asked the following question: Which three founding documents are housed at the National Archives? Your answer, as long as you are as smart as a fifth grader, would be: Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights.
If you were a contestant on Jeopardy!, the answer would be: The US Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights are collectively known as this. Your question should be: What are the Charters of Freedom?
Article and photos courtesy Erik Petkovic
The Charters of Freedom are what the overwhelming majority of people immediately think when they hear National Archives. You would not be wrong. However, when a researcher hears National Archives, they instinctively ask, which one?
There is no doubt you just asked yourself, What do you mean which one? I will explain in more detail below. For now, this will have to suffice: the National Archives is not one building housing the Charters of Freedom or just the building you go to for your eighth grade field trip while in Washington DC, the National Archives is a system of archives throughout the country, with not one, but two, National Archives buildings in Washington DC.
One last thing before we dive into this topic: the National Archives is abbreviated NARA – National Archives and Record Administration.
In order to conduct research in person at any of the NARA facilities and/or Presidential Libraries, one must possess a NARA Research Card. You can get a NARA Research Card at any NARA facility. The Research Card you get is not independent to one facility. In other words, if you get a Research Card at Archives II, it can be used at Archives I or at any of the NARA Regional Archives.
The process is very simple and takes approximately 15-20 minutes. After filling out an application, viewing a PowerPoint presentation about NARA policies and rules, and getting your picture taken, you will be given your very own Research Card. Most importantly, the Research Card is free.
Once you have a Research Card you can proceed directly to the research rooms or finding aids room after passing through the security checkpoints.
National Archives I
Situated between 7th and 9th Streets NW in DC, is what most people think of as the only National Archives. This building is where the Charters of Freedom are housed. You can view them for yourself by entering the National Archives Museum on their southern entrance (tourist entrance) off Constitution Avenue. Every American should see these documents. However, your research starts when you enter the Researcher’s Entrance off Pennsylvania Avenue.
Once you enter the Research Entrance, you will need a photo ID to proceed. You will need to go through a security checkpoint (walk through magnetometer and X-ray machine for your bag). If you do not have a Research Card, you will get a temporary yellow badge at this point. Your next stop would be Registration. If you do have a Research Card, you can proceed to the research rooms. The research rooms are open Monday – Friday from 8:45 a.m. – 5:45 p.m. The research rooms are closed on weekends and Federal holidays.
National Archives II
The NARA building was created to house the abundance of records NARA was in charge of holding and preserving for the public trust. At the time NARA opened its doors at what is now known as National Archives I in 1935, the space in that building was sufficient for its purposes. As time went on, so did the amount of material NARA needed to keep. Add in World War II, several other foreign wars, and 60 years of American history, and the NARA building in Washington DC was much too small to house the records.
In the 1990’s it was decided to construct a separate archives to house these permanent records. With real estate at a premium in Washington DC, Archives II was built in College Park, Maryland. The massive, sprawling building houses maps, photographs, Navy records, Army records, the JFK Assassination material, etc, etc.
Archives II has the same research hours and same rules and policies as Archives I.
Some of the confusion with opening Archives II, was that many of the records initially held at Archives I were transferred to Archives II. If you were expecting material to be at Archives I, you may find it necessary to get the material from Archives II. However, the NARA folks made it easy to get to and from Archives I and Archives II. There is a NARA bus that will take researchers (free) to and from either Archives at the top of each hour.
NARA strategically placed archives regionally throughout the country. These Regional Archives hold court and Federal agency records for the region in which they are placed. They also hold an abundance of material for shipwreck researchers. I use the NARA Regional Archives for all my writing. These little known NARA facilities are hidden gems which hold Merchant Marine logbooks, US Coast Guard Station logs, US Coast Guard vessel logbooks, US Navy vessel logbooks – all essential material for the shipwreck researcher.
Most Regional Archives have varying hours, are only open Monday – Friday, and require an appointment before showing up at their front door. You can request a research appointment via their specific website.
Below is a list of the NARA Regional Archives along with the territory for which they hold records:
NARA at Atlanta: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee
NARA at Boston: Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont
NARA at Chicago: Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin
NARA at Denver: Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, Wyoming
NARA at Fort Worth: Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas
NARA at Kansas City: Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska
NARA at NYC: New Jersey, New York, Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands
NARA at Philadelphia: Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia
NARA at Riverside: Arizona, Clark County, Nevada, Southern California
NARA at San Francisco: American Samoa, Guam, Hawaii, Nevada (except Clark County), Northern and Central California, US Naval Bases on foreign soil
NARA at Seattle: Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, Washington
NARA at St. Louis: Federal employee files, Official Military files
Now that you know where to go to find records, you must learn how to pull those records. There are three basic ways to get the records you have long been searching. The first is to go to the NARA archives facility and pull those records yourself. The second way to obtain those records is to request NARA pull those records for you (for a fee of course). The final way to get your records is to hire a third party (for a fee) to conduct your research, obtain copies, and send the records to you.
Regardless of the way you choose to obtain your records, the first thing a researcher needs to know is the Record Group. All records within NARA holdings are arranges by Record Group. A Record Group may contain all or part of records of an agency or part of an agency. Records are broken down even further under the Record Group. The following is a list of information needed in order to pull your records:
- Record Group
- Entry Name
- Entry Number
- Box Number
- Folder Title/File Number
- Box Number
- Entry Number
- Entry Name
As an example, I am researching logbooks for US Coast Guard Station Elizabeth City. There are Finding Aids at the NARA facility which will help you determine which series of records you need to pull.
In this example, the Finding Aid indicates US Coast Guard Logbooks for stations, bases, and facilities are held under Record Group 26.
Continuing with this example, I would follow the above guidance using my Finding Aids and my result would be the following:
- Record Group
- US Coast
Guard Logbooks for Stations, Bases, and Facilities
- Entry Number
- Box Numbers
- USCG Air Station Elizabeth City Logbook 1941
- Box Numbers 65-68
- Entry Number NC-31, 296A-L
- US Coast Guard Logbooks for Stations, Bases, and Facilities
Once you have all this information, it is time to start digging, but to do so you need to locate the box. You would write all this information on a Pull Sheet and hand to the NARA Staff who will pull your records. Keep in mind that NARA only pulls records several times a day. The following are pull times at Archives I: 9:30 a.m., 10:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 1:00 p.m., 2:00 p.m. and 3 p.m. Your records will be delivered to you in a Research Room.
There are specific rules for the Research Rooms. Paper and pencils will be provided by NARA. Pens and notebooks are NOT permitted. Backpacks, briefcases, purses, boxes, etc are NOT permitted in the Research Rooms. Lockers are available to keep your belongings secure. It costs a quarter and is refunded when the locker key is returned.
Cameras and copy stands and laptops and scanners (no hand wand scanners) are permitted.
One can copy the records for a fee (typically 25 cents per page). There are self-service copy machines available for your use. Payment is via debit card and can be attached to your Research Card. A NARA staff member must review and approve the material you want to copy.
NARA By Mail
If you know all of the aforementioned information (Record Group, Entry Name, Entry Number, Box Number and Folder Title/File Number), but are unable to go to the specific archives facility, you can request NARA pull the records and copy them for you. You can submit a request for duplication to the archives facility where your records are housed. NARA will email you a Quotation For Reproduction Services. Be aware the minimum charge for this service is $20.
Once you have submitted payment for your record reproduction, NARA will sen them to you via your choice of delivery method: paper copies, dvd, or electronic transfer. Typical times for completion are between 45-60 days from time of payment.
Independent Researchers For Hire
NARA will perform limited research for the public. However, in my experience they provide excellent research assistance by helping you find what you need. However, if you are unable to visit the NARA facility where your records are located, but the scope of your research is beyond the scope of NARA employees (again, they perform limited research for the public, but will pull records if you know the specifics), you may need to hire an independent researcher to perform the research for you. You will need to pay for their time and pay for duplication of records. Independent researchers can be located on the NARA website. You can also contact a historian (like me) who can do the research for you.
Part Six Preview
Believe it or not, NARA does not hold everything on every topic. Just think about this: only 1-2% of all material (documents and photographs) have ben saved! Only 1-2%! Oftentimes, only small, local museums and libraries have the holdings a researcher has so desperately been searching. Non-governmental libraries and museums along with the Library of Congress and other international renowned museums such as the Mariners Museum will be featured in Part Six.