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. ūüėČ

  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!

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


Genealogy Year in Reflection: 2013

It‚Äôs the last day of 2013, so I have been reflecting on how the year has gone as it relates to my genealogy research.¬† As I think back, my year really started when I got the Exploring Our Roots & Finding Oprah’s Roots DVDs for Christmas.¬† That was followed by a mobile handheld scanner for my birthday on January 4th.¬† I was really excited because I had made such progress since I started in July 2012. But this year, I was determined to learn more about the process of researching genealogy and family history.

January 2013 РI watched every episode on those DVDs and made notes of comments that might help me in my research. I watched some of the archived webinars on  I also started organizing planning my first research trip to my hometown to gather documents and conduct interviews.

February 2013 – I conducted 3 phone interviews to prepare myself for the trip I was about to embark upon.¬† Toward the end of the month, I finally decided to order Black Roots: A Beginners Guide to Tracing the African American Family Tree by Tony Burroughs.¬† I read parts of the book at the time, because I wanted to only review the parts that¬†I would need for my trip.¬† Didn’t realize at the time that I really needed to read that book cover to cover before running off on a research trip!¬† Lesson learned.

March 2013¬†– I went on my first week-long research trip to Mississippi to my hometown.¬† I created a calendar and had everything planned out from visiting the cemeteries where my family was buried, the county courthouse (Clarke), the state archives (which is a 2 hour drive one-way from my parents), conducting interviews, and searching through the “family archives”.¬† I got to interview my 94 year old¬†cousin, who was an absolute delight! I also got to meet some people on my Dad’s side of the family who I had not previously met, even though they only lived about 15 minutes away from my parents all my life.¬† My mom was my riding partner and she braved the cemeteries (deep in the woods of Mississippi), helped me dig in at the courthouse and the archives, sat through interviews and scanning sessions, helped me track down where funeral home records went, and contacted everyone she knew that could help me.¬† She is still helping me now with my questions and hunting down those that are living who can answer the questions that she doesn’t have the answers to.¬† March was an excited research month for me and I came back with lots of information for my research.¬† To top it all off, there was the birth of my 8th grand nephew (I have 5 grand-nieces as well)!

April 2013 – I started to attend genealogy seminars that were being held here in Atlanta. My first seminar was a lecture by Tony Burroughs and he signed my book!

May – September 2013 – I attended more seminars and even got my feet wet in¬†The National Archives at¬†Atlanta.¬† It was during these months that I realized that I was seriously unorganized!¬† I begin to catalog, scan and file.¬† I am still working on the organizing part (computer issues).¬† Didn’t realize I had so much stuff.¬† I did some research as well, adding to the pile! ūüôā¬† I also started to join Facebook groups looking for guidance. It was through one of the groups that I was able to get the death certificate of my 2x great-grandfather, Henry Stokes, which included the names of his mother and father, taking me back another generation.

Richard Edwards, Jr.

Me and Uncle Richard

October 2013¬†– I lost my Uncle Richard.¬† Richard Edwards, Jr., born February 19, 1940 to Richard Edwards, Sr. and Maudie L. Sterling Edwards.¬† He passed away October 7, 2013.¬† We were hurt, but we know he is at rest and that we were blessed to have encountered him.¬† I cried as I recorded the date in my tree.¬† That was the hard part of genealogy for me.¬† I can still hear his laugh.¬† I am thankful that my sister and I were able to sing a joyful medley at his funeral.¬† I also got to meet his youngest son, a first cousin that I didn’t know existed.¬† October was hard, because my mother lost her brother and 2 cousins that month.¬† That is 4 deaths in all for my family for the year (1 on my dad’s side a few months earlier).

November 2013¬†– I refocused and started to research the Stokes side of my family.¬† I conducted a couple of phone interview and tasked myself with gathering vital records again.¬† On Thanksgiving¬†Day, I met a cousin who added to my collection of funeral programs and even gave me a copy of a fictitious account of the lives of my Great-Granduncle Charlie Moody and Aunt Libby Stokes Moody.¬† The book is called Paw Charlie’s Triumphs by Roy Conner. I read it a day‚Äôs time…I was that excited!¬† I finally decided to finish reading Black Roots: A Beginners Guide to Tracing the African American Family Tree by Tony Burroughs!¬† After I finishing that book, I also read Got Proof! by Michael Nolden Henderson in two day‚Äôs time. I love reading, can’t you tell!¬† November was also the month that I was able to obtain the death certificate of Taylor Stokes, father of Henry Stokes.¬† That death certificate had the name of his father, Kelly Stokes, taking me back yet another generation.

December 2013 РI started to focus on how to properly document my research.  My 9th grand-nephew was born!  I was connected to a cousin who is the keeper of the Stokes family tree.  Lastly, I joined AAGSAR and started this blog to share my research.

I’d say that was an ok year in genealogy, wouldn’t you?¬† I’m pretty excited to take it to the next level and see what my ancestors will show me in 2014!

Happy New Year & Happy Searching!


© 2013 Amy L. Cole and Tracing Amy: My Ancestral Journey.  All rights reserved.

Collaborating With Cousins

I am so excited! Since joining in the past year, I have reached out to several persons that have the same ancestor on their family tree. These trees usually come through hints and when I review, I will send a note. It has taken months for some to reply, but lately they have been replying back to back for a the particular line that I am researching at the moment.

I have been researching the STOKES line because there is a family reunion this year. I want to learn as much as I can before attending. So, I am elated to have found 3 relatives who are also researching. One of my cousins just happens to be the keeper of the family tree and may have most of the details that I would be looking for.  He turned out to be the son of  my Great grand-uncle Alonzo Stokes that I was having trouble finding any information on!  Alonzo Stokes is the son of Henry Stokes and Malissa Pickett Stokes of Clarke County, Mississippi.

My cousin and I spoke today and while he does have a lot of information, there is much work to do to tie up loose ends.  He has mentioned some queries that he would like some help with and we are also talking about pulling together a website dedicated to family history for descendants of Taylor and Cornelia Stokes of Clarke County, Mississippi.  I love it!

Now, I must get to work!  I just wanted to share that having the courage to reach out and adding in much patience eventually pays off.

Happy Searching!


© 2013 Amy L. Cole and Tracing Amy: My Ancestral Journey.  All rights reserved.