Make Your Research Visit to NARA More Successful

The “National Archives Researcher News” recently carried an FAQ that provides guidance on ways to improve your research experience at the National Archives. It is reissued here to bring it to the attention of readers of The Text Message.


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

Q. Do I need to contact the Archives before I arrive?

A. Writing or calling in advance is not required; however, we strongly encourage researchers to write to the National Archives before making a research visit. Please send the same 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. Researchers should make contact far enough in advance to provide the NARA reference staff with 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-in requests, to conduct necessary background work, and to prepare and send a response. If researchers have complex questions that require an in depth consultation, they should write even sooner. Please note, however, that NARA staff cannot undertake research for you. Our staff assists researchers with their work by providing information about the records, but we do not undertake substantive research for researchers.

Q. Do some records need more advanced notice to be available?

A. Contacting us 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, Justice, FBI, the intelligence agencies); records for which you have incomplete or partial identification (agency-assigned numbers, such as Department of State “Lot File” numbers that do not always carry over into use by the National Archives); and records that have only recently been transferred to the National Archives.

Q. Are the records well described for easy use?

A. 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 the 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. 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.

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

A. 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, we are unable to pull records for use in advance of your arrival.

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 microfilmed, or for some other reason).

We can identify records that have been moved to another location, such as a Presidential Library or a NARA regional 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.

We can let you know if the records in which you are interested are available for use. Before records are available to researchers, they must be processed and reviewed for documents containing security classified information or information that is otherwise restricted.

Q. What information does a prospective researcher need to prepare an effective inquiry?

A. Now that you are ready to contact the National Archives, it is time to prepare your research inquiry. An effective inquiry consists of a succinct description of your research interest. Be sure to specify the date period of 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 . If you are interested in a number of individuals, alphabetize your list, although we generally can respond to only about a handful at one time. If you have specific questions about the records, list them. Please remember that it may take a few weeks for NARA to respond.

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

A. Published agency annual report, 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 beginning 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 them with you when you visit.