Home » Adventures in Genealogy Research » My Visit to NARA: Lessons Learned and Best Practices

My Visit to NARA: Lessons Learned and Best Practices

Tracing Amy

Trip to Washington DC

In my previous post, I mentioned that I visited the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in Washington, D.C. while 7 months pregnant.  Well, I thought I would take some time and share my experience.

I had visited the regional branch in Atlanta, but this was my first time visiting the facility in Washington, D.C.  I was at NARA for two days.  I had not planned to go two days, but I had unrealistic expectations of how fast things would go.

Before we even got on the plane, I spent time going over what I wanted to accomplish.  I also spent time reading the site for information on how to use the facility.  The main purpose of this visit was to get land records that would otherwise cost me $50 each to retrieve (I wanted 6 records, you do the math).  With this in mind, I went back to NARA’s site and used their online form to create a spreadsheet that would capture all of the information that I would need in order to fill out the record request forms when I arrived.  I used the Bureau of Land Management General Land Office Records site to ensure I had everything filled into my spreadsheet correctly.  I printed it, saved it to Dropbox and I was ready to go!

When my husband and I arrived, we went through the orientation, placed things in lockers and started my day of research.  Since I had spent the time gathering what I needed, I grabbed the record request forms and went to work.  Well, It wasn’t long before I realized that we had already missed two pull times (missed the second by a hair).  I wasn’t prepared to research anything else, so we had to wait two or three hours until the next pull time, which was around 1:00 PM.  I tried finding something else to research, but I just didn’t have enough information on me to be sure of what I needed to do.  I had no backup plan to maximize my time while waiting for those records to be pulled.  So, we waited.

Finally the records came!  We rushed up to the second floor, retrieved our cart with the records, only to find out that they had pulled about three of the records incorrectly.  It wasn’t because I provided incorrect information, but because they either grabbed the wrong box or made some assumption about what was requested.  I worked with the attendants to fill out another form for those that were wrong and started copying what I needed of the ones that were correct.  At at this point, we would have to come back the next day….which was not what we had planned.

The next day, we got there early and rushed up to the second floor with a plan of attack.  Well, we got started and again one of the boxed that they had pulled for the second time was still incorrect (they just read the numbers wrong this time), this was a bit frustrating.  Long story short, we finally got all of the correct records and worked together to get the copies that we needed (camera and copier) so that we could finally be able to be tourist of the city.  We toured the rest of that day and the next day before hoping on the plan back to Georgia.

If you are visiting NARA for the first time, here are some best practices and lessons learned that I would like to share.  I may sound like a broken record for some of these points, because I am sure you have heard them before.  Some are the same, no matter what archive, library, court house, etc you are visiting. 😉

  1. Read the NARA site thoroughly to find out what you will need to do when you visit.  They have a section on their site that gives lots of information about planning your visit.  There is even a video on the site that is helpful.  There are quite a few links, so take the time to read each one.
  2. Review the NARA catalog to know what they offer.  Even if you know what you want to retrieve while there, you will want to have a backup plan in case you have a wait time like we did.  If I had known, I would have looked more into the military holdings to better understand what I would be able to research while there.
  3. Gather the information you need before you get to the facility.  You will want to do this for your primary reason for visiting and also your backup.  As I mentioned above, I used the NARA site to create a spreadsheet of information that they would need in order to pull the records.  This saved me a lot of time.
  4. Go early on your first day so that you give yourself enough time for orientation and for multiple pulls.  It is a good idea to call ahead and get the exact times for record pulls.  Write them down and keep the note handy.
  5. Bring someone with you if you have a lot of copying to do.  It will help to divide and conquer.  You can use your camera to take pictures of the records or bring your own scanner.  This helps a lot when there are a lot of people and the copiers are being used.
  6. Be nice to the staff and other researchers, you never know who will help you throughout the day. Not that I was mean to anyone, but I thought I would add this one because I think it just helps your day go smoother even when it seems like everything is going wrong.

I really hope that my experience will help someone on their first visit.  Do you have any tips to add?  Share them in the comments!

Happy researching!
~AmyC.

© 2015 Amy L. Cole and Tracing Amy: My Ancestral Journey.  All rights reserved.

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7 thoughts on “My Visit to NARA: Lessons Learned and Best Practices

  1. Hi, my name is Anita Stokes Fortner and I see that some of my relative are in your research. I am from Clark County Mississippi. I grow up there my mother name was Willie Mae Stokes and my father name was Alonzo Stokes. I am related to the Shanks as well. Just wanted to know if you were a relative.

    • Hi Anita,

      Thank you for reaching out! Yes, we are cousins on both the Shanks and the Stokes lines. I grew up in Clarke County as well. My parents are Lee Roy and Jerlean Edwards Pruitt. Our kinship is on my mothers side. She is kin to both the Shanks and the Stokes. Shanks through her father, Richard Edwards and Stokes through her mother, Maudie Lee Sterling Edwards. I will email you my contact information if you want to speak further.

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