About the National Archives

What's an Archives?

An archives is a place where people can go to gather firsthand facts, data, and evidence from letters, reports, notes, memos, photographs, and other primary sources.

The National Archives is the U.S. Government’s collection of documents that records important events in American history. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is the Government agency that preserves and maintains these materials and makes them available for research.

Whether or not you realize it, you probably have an archives in your home. It might be in a filing cabinet in your study, a box in the basement, a chest in the attic. It is your personal archives: a collection of material that records important events from your family’s history.

Both a family’s archives and the nation’s archives

  • save items to serve as proof that an event occurred;
  • explain how something happened, whether for personal, financial, or sentimental reasons;
  • may be located in more than one place.

There are ways that your family archives and the National Archives, together, tell your family’s story. For example, your family’s archives might contain the final certificate for your great-great-grandfather’s homestead; the National Archives may hold the original applications for the homestead. Your family’s archives may include a photograph from the day your grandmother became a U.S. citizen; the National Archives contains the Government applications for naturalization of persons wishing to become U.S. citizens.

Personal Archives Versus Federal Archives

Every day Government agencies create new records that might be transferred to the National Archives. NARA’s holdings are created either by or for the Federal Government. The material comes from the legislative, executive, and judicial branches. Whereas your family’s archives is personal, those held by the National Archives are official. Your family’s archives might include your birth certificate. The National Archives holds the original, signed “birth certificate” for our nation—the Declaration of Independence. For more information, visit What's a Record?

Your family’s archives are available only to you and family members. The holdings in the National Archives are available to almost everyone.

About Our Nation's Records

More than 95 percent of the records in the National Archives are declassified, meaning they are available to all researchers. NARA employs approximately 3,000 full- and part-time employees to help facilitate the use of its holdings. Many of the records in the National Archives are available on microfilm, and more than 1.8 million digital images of documents can be seen through NARA’s online catalog.

Some of the oldest materials in the National Archives are on parchment and date back to the founding of the United States of America. These include the records of the Continental and Confederation Congresses. Some of the more recent holdings include electronic files transferred from the Department of State and are available online through Access to Archival Databases (AAD).

Preservation of Records

To help preserve material, NARA stores archives records in acid-free folders within acid-free boxes that are placed in dark spaces with consistent temperature and humidity.

For many years Federal records were created on paper and stored in files and boxes. These days electronic records are created by government agencies at an astounding rate. To meet this challenge, the National Archives is finding news ways to manage and preserve electronic materials. Learn more about our Electronic Records Archives initiative.

Anyone over the age of 14 with valid identification can conduct research in any of the NARA facilities.