Research Our Records

How can I make my visit more successful?

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) reference staff are committed to giving researchers the best possible assistance. The following questions and answers are provided to help researchers have a good onsite experience and take full advantage of their limited time at the National Archives.

Do I need to contact the Archives before I arrive?

  • We strongly encourage researchers to schedule a research appointment prior to visiting the National Archives in Washington, DC (A1) or the National Archives at College Park (A2).
  • Appointments are required for visiting all other National Archives field facilities and the National Archives at St. Louis.
  • Learn more by visiting the website for the facility you are seeking to visit. Links for each facility website are found on our Visit Us webpage.

Do I need to submit a research question/reference inquiry before I arrive?

  • Submitting a reference inquiry is a part of the appointment scheduling process for the archival units outside the Washington, DC area. 

  • While it is not required for DC area research rooms, we strongly encourage researchers to contact the appropriate reference branch before making a research visit. 

  • Please send your reference inquiry to only one address to avoid confusion and duplication of work. Making contact before arrival can help prepare researchers for what they will find and help smooth the process when they arrive. If you do not know in which facility the records are located, please contact the main inquiry box (Contact Us).

  • Researchers should make contact far enough in advance to allow the NARA reference staff sufficient time to respond. A good rule of thumb is to write a minimum of 4 weeks before you plan to arrive. This allows time for the staff to log requests, to conduct necessary background work, and to prepare and send a response.

  • If researchers have complex questions that require an in-depth consultation that might require an ongoing exchange, they should write even sooner.  Please note, however, that NARA staff cannot undertake research for you. The staff assists researchers with their work by providing information about the records, but it does not undertake substantive research on behalf of researchers.

How does a prospective researcher prepare an effective inquiry?

Researchers should make contact far enough in advance to provide National Archives staff sufficient time to respond before arriving. At a minimum you should submit inquiries at least 4 weeks prior to your onsite research visit. All inquiries are registered in a tracking system and answered in turn. Allow a few days for your inquiry to be registered and processed. A knowledgeable staff member will receive your inquiry and has 10 business days to prepare and submit your response. An effective inquiry consists of:

  • A succinct description of your research interest. Narrowly describe your research topic. Requests along the lines of "everything you have" on a given topic will not lead to a useful response. 
  • Limit requests to one agency or a group of closely related agencies. This will help the reference staff prepare informative responses. This approach may lead to multiple inquiries, but you will receive more complete information about the records of interest. 
  • Specific dates of interest for your topic. Records change over time. What we tell you about 19th century records is very different from what we tell you about those of the 20th.
  • Information about specific individuals. At a minimum this includes first and last names, relationship with the federal government, and relevant dates. If you are interested in a number of individuals, alphabetize your list, although we generally can only respond to a very limited number at one time. Include date of birth if that information is available, especially if it will assist in identifying the individuals within the records.
  • If you have specific questions about the records, list them.
  • If you are interested in specific records, please identify them by record group, entry number, and series title. National Archives Identification Numbers (NAID Numbers) are useful for linking to record series within the Catalog. Include NAID links to the Catalog if you want to refer to records you discovered while researching within the Catalog.

Please remember that it may take a few weeks for NARA to respond.

Do some records need more advanced notice to be available?

Making contact ahead of time is especially necessary if a researcher is interested in:

  • more recent records (1960s and later);
  • records of agencies that deal with more sensitive government functions (such as State, Defense, Justice, the FBI, and the intelligence agencies);
  • records for which you have incomplete or partial identification (records center accession numbers or agency-assigned numbers, such as Department of State "Lot File" numbers, that do not always carry over into use by the National Archives);
  • records that have only recently been transferred to the National Archives.
  • records that are potentially stored in cold storage; 
  • records that are potentially stored at an off-site storage facility

Are the records well described for easy use?

Some are and others are not. While it is our ultimate goal, not all records are fully processed, with full descriptions and complete finding aids. Until the goal is met, locating specific bodies of records transferred to the National Archives, especially those transferred recently, can often involve a time-consuming, multi-step process involving both researchers and NARA staff. This cannot be done effectively on an ad hoc basis while researchers wait in a research room. Researchers may have to request additional information from the agency of origin, and NARA staff may have to consult transfer documentation, printouts, preliminary finding aids, and classified indexes to assist in locating files of interest. In some cases, we may have to contact the agency of origin. The same is true for locating files relating to esoteric topics. NARA understands that the absence of complete finding aids can be frustrating to researchers, but by writing in advance, some of the problems may be overcome.

What are some of the other reasons to contact the National Archives in advance?

  • We can provide information about hours of operation and holidays. Hours of operation are established by each facility.
  • We can provide you with information about NARA procedures. For example, scheduling an appointment and registering in advance.
  • We can identify records that are available on-line or on National Archives Microfilm Publications, thus saving a trip to the National Archives. Researchers must use microfilm and online resources when those options are available.
  • We can identify records that will not be transferred to the National Archives. Only a small percentage of all Federal records are designated as permanent. All others are scheduled for destruction under the authority of approved records control schedules.
  • We can identify permanent records that are not yet in the National Archives. In those cases you must contact the agency of origin.
  • We can let you know if the records in which you are interested are temporarily unavailable to researchers because of various reasons (the records are undergoing preservation work, are being imaged or digitized, or for some other reason).
  • We can identify records that have been moved to another location, such as a Presidential Library or a NARA field facility.
  • We can let you know if the records have been sent to remote off-site storage and thus require advance special arrangements to use or a visit to another NARA facility.
  • We can let you know if the records in which you are interested are available for use. Before some records are made available to researchers, they must be reviewed for documents containing security classified information and information that is otherwise restricted. In addition, other records may require special preservation treatment before they can be made available.

What official sources are available for consultation before visiting the National Archives that will assist in identifying records relevant to my research?

Other resources such as published agency annual reports, official histories, and official documentary publications often cite records or provide examples of records now in the National Archives. These can provide entry points for starting research on a particular topic. Be sure to take note of records descriptions and file citations and note those in your reference inquiries and bring your notes with you when you visit.

What online resources are available from NARA that will assist in identifying records relevant to my research?

The National Archives' online Catalog provides various levels of description and detail about specific record series within the holdings of the National Archives. If you are unfamiliar with the holdings of the National Archives begin your exploration by visiting the

The History Hub is a National Archives hosted community for researchers, historians, and archivists. Researchers of all levels of experience are invited to post their inquiries on History Hub, review responses to similar questions, and read informative blogs written for History Hub.