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Finding Your Way Through The National Archives

by Genealogy.com
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What You'll Find at the National Archives
Knowing what you'll find and how records are arranged will help you make the most of your time at the National Archives.

The United States National Archives and Records Administration has a vast collection of records that could potentially help you with your family research. But how do you know what is available and where to find it? The following text is excerpted from the revised edition of the Guide to Genealogical Research in the National Archives, published by the National Archives Trust Fund Board. This excerpt briefly describes what you can and can't expect from the National Archives records collection, and what resources can guide you to the records you are seeking.

The Guide to Genealogical Research in the National Archives is an excellent resource for learning exactly what is available in the National Archives. It gives details about a variety of record types, including census records, passenger arrival lists, naturalization records, military records, and land records.

Value and Limitations of Federal Records

Today, more and more Americans are discovering the rewards of genealogy — the study of the history of families and the documentation of lines of ancestry and descent. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), the keeper of the historically valuable records of the federal government, can aid genealogical research in many ways.

Some of the records in NARA help to establish lines of ancestry. In the records, the relationships between generations of a family are often given or implied. Genealogists often use census records and pension applications for this purpose. Other federal records give information about individuals — physical descriptions in some cases, places of birth and residence, and activities and occupations — and thereby expand the researcher's picture of the life of an ancestor. The records that document military service, immigration, and the settlement of public domain lands are perhaps those most widely used to trace ancestry, but many other groups of records are full of information useful to genealogists. In fact, every record contains, even if indirectly, some information about some person.

Three important limitations, however, face genealogists doing research in these archives. First, NARA keeps only federal records. Birth, marriage, and death — the milestones of life and the backbone of genealogy — have never been the first concern of the federal government, and the best evidence of these events will be found, if it exists, in family, local, and state records.

Second, the colonial period of American history is not documented in the National Archives; very few records predate the Revolutionary War. Most of the records described in this guide pertain to the nineteenth century, a time when government did not touch the lives of most Americans to the extent that it does today. Wartime was an exception; consequently, military records are useful to many genealogists.

The third limitation arises from the nature of archives: records are arranged to reflect their original purposes, usually just as they were kept by the agency that created them. They cannot be arranged in ways that might seem most helpful to genealogists, partly because family history is only one of the many present-day uses of archives. Names are not listed alphabetically in census records, for example; the records are arranged geographically because the primary reason for taking the census was to determine a state's representation in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Because of these limitations, a researcher should never ask an archivist for information about an ancestor about whom only the name is known. The researcher should come to the archives with information about when and how, and if possible, where an ancestor came into contact with the federal government; sometimes the exact date and place and circumstances of contact are necessary.

NARA Finding Aids

The National Archives and Records Administration publishes several different kinds of finding aids to assist researchers in using its vast holdings. Some record groups are described in inventories or preliminary inventories (PIs). Such finding aids contain a history of the organization and functions of the agency that created the records and descriptions of the series in the record group....

Other types of finding aids include guides, reference information papers, and special lists relating to particular subjects. Such finding aids may cover many record groups — as guides do — or focus on a specific type of document within one record group — as some special lists do.... The Select List of Publications of the National Archives and Records Service (General Information Leaflet No. 3) provides a complete list of finding aids, ordering instructions, and, where applicable, prices. This list is available from the Technical Administration, Washington, DC 20408. Finding aids published before 1968 have been microfilmed as National Archives Microfilm Publication M248, 24 rolls.

NARA Microfilm Publications

Many series of records that have high research value have been microfilmed by the National Archives and Records Administration. Generally, if a series has been filmed, the film is used for research rather than the original. This extensive microfilm program, underway since the 1940s, has resulted in two notable achievements: preservation and enhanced access. Priceless, fragile, and awkwardly bound documents can be removed from reference circulation where they would have been exposed to damage and deterioration from ordinary use. Also, microfilm makes valuable records available to researchers in many parts of the county. All National Archives microfilm publications are available for use in the National Archives building. Many of the important microfilm publications — including microfilm of federal census schedules, 1790-1910 — are available in the archives branches at National Archives Centers (NACs) in 11 metropolitan regions.

In addition, many state and local archives, historical and genealogical societies, libraries, and research institutions have purchased copies of National Archives microfilm and make it available to their patrons. Individuals can buy rolls to use on a microfilm reading machine at home or with permission at a local library. Because microfilmed records are widely distributed, researchers should explore their own community resources completely before planning research trips to Washington, D.C.

Many microfilm publications numbers begin with "M." Most of these are accompanied by descriptive pamphlets that contain thorough explanations of the origin, content, and arrangement of the records. Other microfilm numbers begin with "T." These publications do not include explanatory introductions or notes. Both "M" and "T" publications are available for use in the Microfilm Research Room in the National Archives building.

National Archives Microfilm, Resources for Research: A Comprehensive Catalog (1996) lists the microfilm publications available from the National Archives. The publications are also indexed by Record Group, publication number, and subject. Federal population census records are described in Federal Population Censuses, 1790-1910 (1997), 1900 Federal Population Censuses (1978), 1910 Federal Population Censuses (1982), and 1920 Federal Population Censuses (1992).

Other catalogs describe microfilm publications of interest to genealogists: Immigrant and Passenger Arrivals (1991), Genealogical and Biographical Research (1983), American Indians (1995), and Military Service Records (1985). For information on ordering these catalogs, see the online order page listed above. In some instances, National Archives microfilm publications are available through interlibrary loan. For information, contact your local library.


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This article was written by Genealogy.com staff.

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