NARA DC Research Trip

My current research project has me digging through 19th century U.S. Maritime records. Since they are federal records, they are held by the The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). In addition to the Archives I and II facilities in Washington, DC, NARA also has 16 regional facilities across the United States. The Atlanta location holds federal records relating to the southeastern region of the United States and that’s where I found some initial records specific to my current project – related to Lifesaving Stations along the Carolina coastline. However, the personnel records and other headquarters-level records are all in Washington, D.C., at Archives I. (if you are going to do any research in DC – you should do as much research as possible using the NARA catalog to determine the location of your specific records.)

Once I identified the records I wanted to review and made my travel plans and my research plan, I needed to get myself oriented to the archives and their procedures and policies. Followers of my old travel blog will know I am a planner. Not the kind that fills every minute of the itinerary with precise locations and events, but I do like to know what my options are and what’s feasible. I do the same for my research trips. Besides knowing the records and my research goal – I want to know whether I should or can bring my lunch, if there’s a place to store my coat and backpack, etc. Things that I can sort out ahead of time so my brain can be focused on the research. Who wants to spend an hour of research time (or vacation time) trying to figure out which bus to take or how far the nearest deli is? And can I leave my stuff in the archives while I’m taking a fresh-air break?

Much like with vacation planning, I hoped to get some reviews and tips from folks who had been there and done it. Surprisingly, there weren’t too many responses to my query posted to the Association of Professional Genealogist (APG) mail list – compared to some ongoing conversations found there. Still, there were some helpful hints such as a reminder to check the website for the record pull times; that the lockers were large enough for luggage; the café in the basement was passable, but closed by 2:30; etc.

Here’s what I learned that seems relevant to share and may help others be more prepared for their trip to NARA DC:

Getting there:

If you are driving to DC, try to stay near a METRO station, preferable at a hotel with a shuttle that will drop you off! Your best bets for budget-friend options with suburban conveniences nearby are outside the I495 Beltway. Parking is expensive downtown and not always convenient. Not to mention that DC traffic patterns change throughout the day depending on rush hour demand. (Ask me about the time a rental car got placed upon the sidewalk because I parked it in what became a travel lane after 3pm!) If you can avoid driving into the city, it will remove a fair amount of stress from your day.

If you do plan to use METRO – do yourself a favor if you have time the day before and get your SmartTrip pass at a convenient retail location (scroll to the retail option here. I found a CVS next door to my hotel for hassle-free card purchase.)

My hotel was only a few minutes from Greenbelt Metro station. With just a 10-15 minute shuttle ride, and a 30 minute train ride, I was relaxed and ready to go upon arrival at the National Archives/Navy Memorial Metro stop – directly across Pennsylvania Ave from the Researcher Entrance to NARA.

If you are the adventurous sort and the weather is pleasant, there is a Hostel International location just a few blocks from the archives. Not for the faint of heart, hostels are communal boarding rooms, often segregated male/female, with a shared kitchen and bathroom facilities. This particular one does offer private rooms and overall the price ranges from $35-$70, making this a very budget-friendly option. But you will sacrifice privacy – something to consider if you intend to work at night to prepare for your research day. They do not offer parking, so you will incur that expense if you are driving into town. 

Here’s how the day went:

It was just a little before 8:30 when I entered the “researcher entrance” of the National Archives. This is a small foyer with the security screening equipment and guards – it was quite congested when I arrived due to a meeting event being held onsite. Directly in front of the door is a security desk, where you are directed to place your items on the security screener to your right and walk through the x-ray scanner. The next step is to stop at that same desk and present a government id to receive your “Temporary Researcher Pass.” You are required to wear this at all times while in the building.

Researcher Card

The research room does not open until 8:45, so I had a few minutes to wait in the lobby before the guards called “Researchers” and allowed us to enter the Research Room behind the security desk.

This is the hub of activity for the first hour or so of your day if you’ve never been to NARA DC. Some of you may do all of your research in this area – there are computers, genealogy volunteers, and a microfilm room all in this area. If it’s your firist visit, the clerk at the desk directly in front of the entrance will direct you to a kiosk to complete the orientation, then to the “Registration” agent in a room to the left. You’ll still have your hands full of your things – but all you need is your photo id at this point.

There was no one waiting, so after providing some contact information, I was photographed and given my card. Beyond this area are bathrooms and lockers. The first record pull was scheduled for 9:30, so I quickly deposited my things in my locker (be sure to have a quarter!) and just took my notes needed for the initial consultation. I would return for my laptop and other things after the consultation. If you get lost on what to do next, the desk clerk in the main hub can very likely help get you back on track. In any case, you need to stop there and swipe your brand new card “in” for the day.

Consultation Room/Record Pulls

Back out past the registration desk, but still in the “Research Room” hub, on the other side (right side) is the consultation room. There is a sign-in desk, and I was quickly assisted. The consultant asked questions about the records I was interested in, and I had a prioritized list of records from my preliminary homework. He had some finding aids in that room, but my records seemed to pose a bit of a challenge, so I submitted four pull slips for three types of records. The procedure for pulling the more frequently used military records common to genealogy researchers is much smoother and probably faster than my experience – but I’m sure it all depends on the records and the volume of requests on any given day.

By 9:30, I had my researcher card, stowed my stuff in the locker, found the restrooms, consulted with an archivist, and submitted four pull slips. Having been advised that my records were a bit of a challenge, I took the opportunity to scope out the cafeteria in the basement. The hallway is a bit winding, but well marked. And I will take this opportunity to say that everyone I encountered was super-helpful and friendly.

Cafeteria Tour

The cafeteria has your basic fare: burgers, pizza, chips, candy bars, and some salads and sandwiches/wraps. The prices were as expected, but not unreasonable. You may also bring your own brown-bag lunch to eat in the dining room (there isn’t anywhere else to eat). There are vending machines, microwaves, and an ice/water dispenser available. The cafeteria is open most of the day, but the hot lunch line closes around 2:30. There is a refrigerated section with pre-made things and drinks if you miss the hot lunch. The cafeteria is the most convenient option, but you can easily walk right across the street to the Navy Memorial and find a few lunch spots – though prices and crowd may be prohibitive. Or, you can do both – get your lunch to go from the cafeteria and walk outside to enjoy some fresh air. The Navy Memorial has seats and steps to perch upon – but no tables.

Researcher Library – 2nd Floor

Posted menu as of February 2018

Having taken my tour of the cafeteria and finished my coffee, I went back to the locker on the main floor (in the hub, remember?) to grab the clear plastic zip case ($1 at Office Depot) holding my chargers, glasses and a few pencils and headed up to the 2nd floor Research Library. Another card swipe, and a quick security check of my belongings and I was directed to the main desk. Having just submitted my pull slips, I had nothing waiting for me and was advised to be patient. There were several different employees at this desk in the span of 15-20 minutes and all were pleasant and helpful – at least two asking me for my card and what records I was waiting for and that they would “keep an eye” out for them. In the meantime, I added some money to my researcher card to facilitate printing (.24cents/copy), and was shown the different tools available:


  • A light table with camera stand
  • Cell phone camera stands (also for small SLR cameras)
  • Weighted “sandbags” to weigh down pages in a book
  • Clear plexiglass to flatten folded pages for ease of reading/photographing
  • Pillows to support book bindings
  • A scanner with a USB port (I think this was still .25cents/page – but I didn’t use)

By 10:45 my first records were brought up. The room is fairly small and there weren’t many people using the library, so the desk clerks were quick to announce the arrival of my records and walk me through signing them out for use. The cart was parked near my desk and I was instructed on where I could and could not place the boxes, files, etc. The desktop can get crowded if you have a laptop, camera stand, large ledgers, file boxes, etc.

Records that have been pulled can be held for you overnight, or you can return them if you are done with them for good. If you only pulled a few things at 9:00 (the first pull) be sure to submit any more pulls as soon as possible to ensure you always have something waiting for you – there is a limit to how many pull slips you can have “out” at one time, though I’m not sure what that limit is. The same goes for carts of material – at one point, one of my pull slips exceeded space on the cart, so the archivist sent a new pull slip for me to resubmit.

Some notes about the Researcher Library on the second floor:

  • It is permissible to leave your things at your desk while you take a break. (up to two hours). Leaving your valuables is at your own risk – a risk I felt comfortable taking since there were not many researchers and the clerks recommended me to leave my laptop while I ran downstairs. (there was much more activity in the Hub on the main floor – so I’m not sure I would have been so comfortable leaving my things at a desk there, if it is even allowed – but the lockers are just steps away)
  • There are restrooms and a water fountain down the hall on this floor
  • Each desk has one lamp and one power outlet
  • You will have to show your researcher card and present your belongings for security screening each time you exit/enter.

Happy Hour

This was just the first few hours of my first day at NARA DC. I plan to be here all week and may even get to Archives II for some photographic records. If you only have one or two days, and are interested in the usual military records, check out Jill Morelli’s blog for a rundown of her day at the archives.

Now it’s a happy hour beverage and and early bedtime (just as soon as I get this posted!) I have a full cart of records I’ll be able to jump right into at 8:45 Tuesday. Oh – I do need to dump the 584 photos I took to the cloud…

Where will your research take you?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *