Washington D.C.- A Guide to Research at the National Archives

Since the most important thing to a historian is their research, I thought it would be appropriate to create a guide for archival research at the National Archives in Washington D.C. I am planning on creating a travel guide for D.C. but before I give you the obvious- where to stay and what to do, I want to address the process for research at the National Archives.

To begin, there is a special entrance for researchers separate from the National Archive museum (where the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, etc., are housed- the museum entry is free). Do not bring food or drink as most are not allowed, however, there is a cafe downstairs which you can use to grab a snack if you are camping at the Archives for the day. Also, be advised that there is a security check much like that at the airport and you will be expected to run bags and belongings through a scanner as well as walk through a metal detector. After you have gone through security, you will walk just a few feet to the registration desk where they will take your Driver’s license number and name down and give you a temporary pass which you will be expected to wear at all times. You will also need to again explain why you are there. After you pass the security desk, you will go straight ahead into two glass doors of the research center. If you do not have a researcher card, you will need to first check in with the attendants at the front desk who will point you to your left to the registration desk where you will again give your I.D., some additional information, and get your picture taken.  From there, they will print you a researcher card. Each card is good for a full calendar year from the time it is printed. The I.D. cards are free and you will want to keep it on you at all times as you will not be allowed to leave or enter various rooms without it.

After you have obtained a researcher I.D. card, you will exit the glass doors and go across the room to the archivist’s office. From there, you will sift through finding aids and fill out pull slips located on the multiple tables in the room. An archivist will assist you to fill out your pull sheets. Some of the records are located online and in that case, the archivist will send you to the computers located in the main research area with a document number. The pull times start at 9:30 AM and continue as follows:

  • 10:30 AM
  • 11:30 AM
  • 1:00 PM
  • 2:00 PM
  • 3:00 PM

Any pulls put in on or after these times, will go to the next pull so make sure you give yourself lots of time. Get there early. Also, fill out several sheets for each pull time and give them to your archivist to turn in. YOU MUST FILL OUT A PULL SHEET FOR EACH DOCUMENT YOU REQUEST- that takes extra time. You can pull up to nine items at a time, however, some archivists will refuse to turn in that many slips at a time so just get as many materials as you can for each pull time. Since the pulls take up to an hour (if you put in for the 9:30 pull, expect it at 10:30) and there is always a chance the pull can be wrong or that the document is missing from the collection. Further, the reading room, in which you will view your documents, is located on the second floor and you must check in and out (swipe your card, pass your materials through security, and inform them where you are going) everytime you enter or leave a research area whether that be the reading room, the research center, or the building altogether. To avoid having to run back and forth between floors and check in and out each time, try to pull more materials then you can actually get through. That way, if some of the pulls are wrong you still have materials and you won’t need to be glued to your watch to make sure you make pull times. They will also hold carts for researchers who plan to return to the Archives the next day so any pulled materials left over from the day before can be saved and viewed the following day.

After you put your pulls in, head back to the desk you received your researcher card, proceed past the desk and down the hallway to put your belongings in a provided locker. You will need a quarter to obtain the key which you will get back once the key is returned.  You may not wear coats, scarves, or hats, etc., in the reading room. You may, however, take laptops, cameras, scanners, phones, etc., as long as you remove any cases and use strictly the bare device. There are carts in the locker room and hallway in for easier transport of larger or several electronic items. You CANNOT bring your own paper or pencils into the reading room and will be asked to discard them before entering. All the necessary supplies are provided by the Archives once in the reading room.

Once you have secured your items in a locker, use the elevator behind the security desk where you first entered to travel to the second floor. Once there, check in with the guard and swipe your researcher card. Proceed to the desk with your card and ask the attendant for the previous hour’s pull (you will need to wait about an hour before heading to the reading room after submitting your pulls).  The attendant will have you sign, initial, and time out the cart on the back of a copy of your pull slip. Then, find a seat and grab your page weights, magnifying glasses, pencils, paper, etc. When your pull is ready your name will be called and your documents will be brought to you on a cart. Be sure to place the materials back on the cart exactly the way they came. Usually, nothing is stored on the top shelf of the cart.

Some rules for the reading room:

  • One person per document at a time. Two people CANNOT share the same cart materials
  • Handle the documents with care
    • Always use a bean bag pillow to rest large volumes and delicate documents. They are located on the shelves at the back of the reading room and on various desks throughout. Ask an attendant if needed.
    • Do NOT copy documents from a volume- take a picture with your phone instead to save the binding
  • Do not set your note paper on the documents while taking notes
  • Leave pull slips with the materials they are delivered to you with
  • Be quiet and respectful of others around you

Once you are done with one pull, take the cart back to the desk, sign, initial, and time in the cart, and repeat the process for additional pulls.

When you leave the reading room, you will have to check in with the security officer who will have to view all of your materials, including electronics. You will need to swipe your card and will be free to return to the research room on the first floor to gather your belongings from your locker.

Before you exit the building, you will have to go through additional security who will search your bags, examine your electronics, and paper notes taken from the reading room. You will also return your temporary visitors pass to the security desk.

Additional tips:

  • View the online catalog of records before visiting the research center. Note the collections you want to view and share them with the archivist for an easier time locating the correct finding aids.
  • Bare with Security- Most are not very friendly; don’t be discouraged by it.
  • If you can collect data digitally through Google docs/sheets, etc., this is ideal, especially if you have limited time at the Archives.
  • Utilize your cell phone. Take pictures of documents and import them into your reading library. They will then be made into PDFs which can be emailed and then printed from another location.
  • Know that some documents may be missing- even if the catalog and finding aids list them as available in the Archives.
    • Many records are shared or borrowed by other archives around the country. Ask your archivist if the records can be located. If there is a possible location outside of the Archives, call the specific archive/museum/etc. to inquire about the documents you need. Research is all about following the breadcrumbs, even in tracking down primary sources.
  • Limit your research topic and be specific.
    • Make sure you are using your time at the Archives wisely by locating essential documents first- save the rabbit trails for last.
    • Know specifically what you want to research and have a clear focus to explain to the archivist- they can be most helpful when you know your subject material well.
    • Be prepared to find answers other than the ones you came for**- Sources tell the stories, and they don’t always fit expectations.

Click the link below to get started on planning your next research trip! And happy hunting 🙂

❤ Webster

Search the National Archives

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