The United States National Archives has a fabulous collection of documents relating to history. However, navigating its holdings can be somewhat arduous due to the fact that there is not only the main building in Washington, DC, but fourteen regional archives AND there are very different collections in each one. Add that to the fact that most of NARA’s holdings have not been digitized and complications soon arise.
However, NARA is a work in progress and its website has dedicated a page to help genealogists find exactly what they are looking for.
A researcher’s starting point should be the home page of NARA’s website.
Entire volumes have been written about the collections in our National Archives. The goal of this post is NOT to replicate which trove is located where.
My goal is to share with you all the general information available on the site that will broaden your scope of knowledge and understanding about what NARA offers researchers.
First, in deference to all the regional archives, if you are trying to locate a particular record or collection not housed in Washington, DC, there is a page to guide you to local branches.
Now, back to the main website itself. Most family historians will probably want to begin by clicking on Research Our Records at the top left of the home screen.
Choosing Research Your Ancestry (left side, middle row above) opens a myriad of options for genealogists.
Everything from tips to getting started to forms and online research tools (tools related to NARA, such as finding aids, etc.) are found here. I really like one particular choice – Records Digitized by Partners – in the Start Your Family Research box.
Records Digitized by our Partners Link
NARA’s partners include FamilySearch, which is a free site, plus Ancestry and Fold3, which are subscription sites. However, databases are not all necessarily exclusive to one site or another.
For example, I have relatives who somewhat frequently crossed the border from New England to Canada to visit friends and relatives. The fact that these records deal with a country other than the U.S. immediately puts them in the world subscription category on the pay sites. Yet, take a look at this:
The exact same collection of records covering Canadian border entries through Vermont is also available on FamilySearch. I could have browsed both sites and found them, but any collection of U.S. federal records on the NARA partner sites is listed in this link. NARA is providing one-stop browsing in ABC order. This list is very, VERY long, but well worth checking out.
The next really neat link to click is the National Archives Catalog Guide for Genealogists:
This is the place to go to find out everything you ever wanted to know how to do/locate in NARA.
How to locate records is really important to know, especially given that NARA isn’t the easiest collection of holdings to navigate. There is a handy example of how records are organized, along with an example of finding District Court records:
The last section I want to highlight is the Events calendar. Although this calendar is on NARA, it includes nationwide workshops, events in the DC area and the National Archives Calendar, which includes information about the upcoming NARA 2017 Virtual Genealogy Fair, which is free to attend and it runs for two whole days.
There is a link to the 2016 Virtual Genealogy Fair, which in turn, also has links to the past fairs, begun in 2005 but with website links from 2006 onward.
The great thing about this page is that if you are unable to attend the virtual fairs live (like me, as we seem to be on cruises every year when they are held), then just visit this page.
Last year’s full schedule is posted with links to viewing on YouTube.
YouTube links are also available for the 2014 and 2015 fairs. Before that, there are links to handouts and presentation slides.
In closing, I want to mention the Prologue, in itself ironic since a prologue is an opening. In this case, it is the magazine published quarterly by NARA and available by subscription for $24/year.
I have to admit that I have learned a lot about NARA and all it offers while researching for this post. This website is quite user-friendly and not at all overwhelming. Yes, it is necessary to visit brick and mortar buildings or pay NARA fees to obtain records, but more and more records are going online. It is well worth the time to visit NARA to see for yourself.
If you’d like to attend the 2017 Virtual Genealogy Fair, it is scheduled for one week from today, on Wednesday, 25 October 2017. All sessions and handouts are accessible for free and you can view the talks from the comfort of your home.