Finding Aids: General Information Leaflet 71

The National Archives in the Nation's Capital –
Information for Researchers

Services for Onsite Users – Frequently Asked Questions

What should I do to prepare before visiting?

You can save valuable archival research time by learning as much as possible about our holdings before you visit. See Sources of Information About Our Holdings, for suggestions on how to access this information. Much of it is available on our web site at

You can prepare most effectively for your visit by doing background research to help determine the relevance of the archival documents you hope to review. This background research can begin in a library with encyclopedia entries, books, and journal articles on your topic, or it can involve interviews with experts. Names of people and places and dates of events gathered from these sources will help you to narrow your focus and use your archival research time efficiently. For example, your knowledge of key dates will enable you to reduce the number of documents you might otherwise need to examine in a voluminous file of chronologically arranged correspondence. For assistance with this type of library research, visit your local library or consult the web site for our Archives Library Information Center (ALIC) at

We encourage you to contact us in advance of your visit. By discussing your plans with us beforehand, we can confirm that pertinent records are among our holdings and available for research. Please be sure to provide us with contact information in case we need to advise you of any complicating circumstances that could interfere with your research plans.

It is possible, for example, that restrictions on access apply to the records of interest to you. Sometimes it is necessary for us to move records between our Washington-area facilities to accommodate building renovations or expansion of holdings. In addition, we have recently begun a program of transferring fragile records on deteriorating acetate film to cold storage outside the Washington area. (We retrieve these records from cold storage for research, but the retrieval process requires at least 24 hours.)

A telephone call, letter, or an email to us in advance could save you the needless frustration of discovering on your arrival that the records you need are not available. (See Contacting Us.)


When are research rooms open in the Washington, DC, area?

View research hours in both the Washington, DC, and College Park, MD, buildings.


When is the best time to schedule an initial visit?

Your initial visit should occur during business hours (Monday through Friday, 8:45 a.m.–5 p.m.) when archives specialists and archivists are available to help you begin research. Plan on arriving as early as possible on the first day of your research visit. An afternoon arrival after 3 p.m. will not allow enough time for records to be identified and retrieved from the stack area for your examination that day. We store our records in closed stack areas, so you will need to order records through one of our research consultants. However, you may use the copies of records housed in our microfilm and video research rooms at any time during our hours of operation without making prior arrangements.


Do you charge a user fee?

No, we do not charge fees to use records in our research rooms. Neither do we charge a fee for any research support services that our staff may provide. There are fees to make or obtain copies of records.


Do I need to register as a researcher?

Yes. Before using archival records, you must obtain a researcher identification card at one of our Customer Service Centers. To obtain a card, you must be at least 14 years old. (If you are not 14 years old, you must have a note from a teacher or other school official stating that you are working on a research project requiring the use of primary documents. Also, you must be accompanied by an adult who agrees to be present while you do your research.) Before issuing the researcher identification card, our staff will ask you to show some sort of photographic identification, such as a driver’s license, school or business identification card, or passport. You must present the NARA researcher identification card when you enter a research area.


How do I get research guidance after I arrive?

After obtaining a research card, you will meet with a staff member about your topic and consult onsite finding aids that describe our holdings. Finding aids are available for many, but not all, record groups. They include guides, inventories, lists, and indexes. The type and level of coverage of these finding aids varies from record group to record group. Our staff can assist you in relating these various information resources to your research interest.

If you find that you need to perform more background research in published sources after arriving at either facility, we may direct you to the Archives Library Information Center (ALIC) for assistance. The Archives Library Information Center in each building houses both reference collections and publications about U.S. history and Federal agency administrative history. Publications about archival theory and practice are available in ALIC at College Park.


What may I bring with me?

To ensure the safe handling of our original records, we have established research room procedures. Items permitted into our research rooms are limited. You may bring very small personal items, such as hand-held wallets or coin purses, into research rooms, but they are subject to inspection when you enter or leave. You may bring a personal laptop computer. We have outlets available for this purpose.

Items not needed for research (such as outerwear and large bags, purses, backpacks, and briefcases) must be placed in a locker. These lockers, which we provide for your convenience, require a refundable quarter deposit. We make all determinations regarding what is acceptable for taking into our research rooms.

We must approve and stamp materials necessary for research, such as loose-leaf notes, lists, or references. This allows security personnel to easily identify these papers as non-NARA items when you leave. We provide pencils and specially marked paper and notecards for your use in taking notes. Research room staff can instruct you in the proper handling of records. For additional information, consult GIL 57, Rules for Using Historical Records in the National Archives, which is available in all research rooms. Our research rooms rules are codified in the Code of Federal Regulations (36 CFR 1254, Subpart B). All these rules regarding belongings are relaxed in the Microfilm Research Room in the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, because original records are not used there.


Can I get copies of records while visiting?

It is possible to obtain copies of most of the records that we make available in our research rooms. The options for doing so vary according to the type of record and its condition.

Self-Service Copies

The National Archives and Records Administration is one of the few archival institutions in the world to offer researchers the opportunity to make self-service copies of records. This rare privilege carries with it responsibilities for careful handling of original documents. Because of preservation considerations, our research room staff must examine all original records before you make copies. Fragile or oversized records may not be self-photocopied. See the sections following on NARA-Prepared Copies.

Self-service black-and-white photocopiers are available for your use in our electronic, still picture, and textual research rooms. A self-service color copier is also available in our still picture research room. A debit card reader attached to each copier deducts money as a copy is made. Debit cards may be purchased onsite through vending machines or at our Cashier’s Office. The vending machines take bills only. The Cashier’s Office is open from 8:45 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. in the National Archives Building in Washington, DC and from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. in the National Archives at College Park, Monday through Friday.

Self-service reader-printers are available in our microfilm research rooms. Like the photocopiers described above, these reader-printers require debit cards.

You may duplicate reference copies of unrestricted audiovisual materials in our motion picture, sound, and video research room. There is no charge if you use your own equipment. Such equipment is subject to inspection when you arrive and depart. A dubbing station is available for you to use for a fee.


NARA-Prepared Copies

The cartographic and architectural research room is equipped with a copier capable of producing black and white copies of many types of oversized records. Staff operate this equipment and can usually complete the work while you wait.

NARA reproduces electronic records in a variety of media, with varying encoding. A NARA staff member familiar with these records can provide you with current information about copying options. (See Contacting Us.)

Am I allowed to bring my own copying equipment?

You may bring your own camera to photograph records, but you may not use a flash.

You may use your own scanner with the following restrictions: the copying surface (platen) must be the same size or larger than the record; the scanner must not cause friction, abrasion, or otherwise damage records; light sources must not generate heat on the records; and equipment surfaces must be clean and dry before being used. Drum and automatic feeder scanners are prohibited.

Personal paper-to-paper copiers are permitted only under certain restricted conditions and are subject to highly specific guidelines. If you intend to bring a scanner or copier, you must make prior arrangements with the Customer Service Center in the building in which you intend to work.

Because of preservation considerations, our research room staff must examine all original records before you make copies using your own equipment.


Are some records protected by copyright?

Because they were created by employees or agents of the Federal Government, most of the records in the custody of the National Archives of the United States are in the public domain. However, we do hold some documentary materials that originated in private hands, and these may be protected by copyright. If so, it is your responsibility to obtain any necessary permission from the copyright holder. Particularly in the case of some special media records, Federal agencies may have obtained materials from private commercial sources, and these may carry publication restrictions, as well as copyright protection. Furthermore, the owners of these images may impose usage fees.


General Information Leaflet 71 – 2001
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