Table of Contents
Getting Started with Research at the National Archives
Gather Information about your Topic
At the National Archives, we hold documents created by or in the course of business with the US Federal Government. The more your know about your chosen topic, and why and how the United States Federal government was involved with that matter, the better the chance that your search for records will be successful. You can use your local library and web sites to learn as much as possible.
- Determine whether your topic can be searched in the National Archives. What is the connection between your topic and Federal Government programs and policies? Do some background reading on your intended subject, noting significant names, dates, events, and any evidence that Federal records may be used for further research.
- What is the connection between your topic and the specific time period during which the Federal Government may have been involved with your topic?
- What is the connection between your topic and the geographic locations that may relate to your topic and how the Federal Government may have been involved with programs and government for that area(s).
Are you sure you need to use an archives instead of a library?
Which is a better resource to help you find the information you need, a library or an archives ? Libraries and archives are different from one another in many ways. Here are some of the differences you can expect:
At a Library
A library contains published books and periodicals that usually can be checked out and replaced if lost or stolen. When using a library, you would:
- Use a card- or online-catalog that lists every item in the library's collections.
- Identify each item that you would like to use by its call number, which is a code used to categorize and organize items in libraries by subject.
- Walk directly to a shelf in the library and retrieve an item (self-service).
Questions relating to general historical or factual information, biographical information, and compiled, statistical information are usually better answered in a library.
The National Archives has a resource library, called the Archives Library Information Center (ALIC), that supports our staff and visitors. ALIC is a reference library; it does not provide archival records to the public.
Presidential libraries that are administered by the National Archives are not libraries in the traditional sense. They are repositories for preserving and making available Presidential historical materials of U.S. Presidents since Herbert Hoover.
An archives provides access to original records that were created and/or accumulated by a person, family, organization, or government institution in the course of its "life" or daily business. Because these records usually cannot be replaced, security and preservation of the records play an important role in making them available to the public. When using an archives, you would:
- Refer to an online catalog or paper-based guides, or a combination of both, to begin your research; you would need to identify the name of the organization that created the records, and identify the unit of records that might contain the information that you seek.
- Request records and await their retrieval from secure areas called "stacks."
- Examine records grouped together, not handed to you as separate pieces of paper. When you request records from the stacks, they will come to you in boxes and folders that are ordered in a sequence that preserves the filing system implemented by the organization that created and used the records. In an archives, it is as important to preserve and maintain the filing system of the records as it is to preserve and maintain the records themselves. If records are removed from their filing arrangement, it may be impossible to return the document to its proper place. More about how records are "grouped."
- Spend time, online or at the archives, learning about the records to locate the specific information that you seek. While some documents might be available through an archives's web site, only a small fraction of the records are available online. The cost to prepare, produce, and maintain electronic versions of billions of paper documents is exceptionally high. Learn more about why all archived Federal records are not available on our web site.
Are the records relating to your topic possibly located in a state, local, or private archives?
Remember that the Federal Government has almost no jurisdiction over state, local, or municipal activities, or over private enterprises, unless mandated by the Constitution. Therefore, we do not have discrete files of birth, marriage, divorce, death, or similar state and local level records. (See our page on vital records.)
Except for some donated materials, most of which are in the Presidential libraries, we do not have state, local, or private records. In almost all cases, therefore, there must be a discernable Federal or Presidential involvement in your topic for there to be documentation in the National Archives.
If you know the records you are interested in are at the National Archives, determine where they are located
The National Archives and Records Administration is truly a national system of records repositories, with many records beyond the Washington, DC area, in the regional archives and the Presidential libraries.
To find which of our locations may hold what you are looking for:
- Use the National Archives Catalog
- For microfilm available, search the Microfilm Catalog
- Check the Guide to Federal Records
- Search by Record Group number or by agency name or topic
- Find the description that covers what you are looking for
- See if the description notes where the records are located
- Review the holdings of the Regional Archives
If you can't determine where the records are located which you want to see, please contact us.
Once you determine that the National Archives is where you want to research your topic, you should become familiar with the concept of record groups. All records are part of a Record Group associated with a records creator: an agency, bureau, commission, or other entity of the Federal government. Knowing which part of the government created the records you want to see will help you narrow your search to a Record Group, and from there you'll narrow your search even further to a series of records within a Record Group.
- What Federal agencies or Presidential administrations were involved? Records in the National Archives are kept in the original order by creating agency or creating individual. You need to know whose records you need to see. See our page on Federal Government organization.
- What functions did these agencies perform? Did the agency conduct investigations, hold
hearings, prepare reports on technical matters, or correspond with the public or other
Thinking about these functions will help you identify more specifically what
records you need to see.
- When were the records you are looking for created? It usually takes 20-30 years for records from Federal agencies to reach the National Archives. Presidential materials are taken into custody by the National Archives following the administration. If the records you are seeking have not been transferred to the National Archives, you will need to contact the creating agency directly.
Now that you've taken some time to investigate your topic further, you should use the NARA website to look for records or information about the records you may be interested in. Our web site likely contains answers to many of the preliminary research-related questions you might have.