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We often refer to NARA (National Archives and Records Administration) as if it were one place - the Archives. But in reality it is a number of physical locations and an incredible web presence as well. There is of course the National Archives Building between Constitution and Pennsylvania Avenues in Washington, DC, known as Archives 1. It is an imposing structure with the Shakespearean quote on the Pennsylvania Avenue side, “The past is prologue”, to remind us always of the importance of maintaining our historical records.
There are other “archives” however. The building known as Archives 2 is in College Park, MD is one of them and then of course there are the regional archives centers, twelve in total, along with the 14 Presidential Libraries, and other affiliates of the Archives such as the military service colleges.
Of importance to most genealogists will be the two Washington area sites and the regional center closest to where you (or your ancestors) lived. For example there is a Chicago Regional Archives at 7358 S. Pulaski and their website is https://www.archives.gov/chicago. The best way to start your hunt at the Archives is through their Resources for Genealogist page. The topics on this website range from Getting Started to suggestions for resources and topics to help guide your research.
The primary tool for finding sources is the Archives’ catalog which is found at https://catalog.archives.gov/. Most users of the catalog encourage the use of the Advanced Search which can be reached at https://catalog.archives.gov/advancedsearch. This search allows you to filter your search by among other things, dates, geography, person or organization name, as well as the general search term.
Within the original building are stored millions of records as well as the basic documents that define the country - the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. But don’t be fooled by the classical architecture and stately documents. This is a 21st century institution. Take for instance the Innovation Hub - well named - where special courses and classes can be conducted. It includes a Scanning Room where you may make electronic scans of the materials that you find which are also saved for the use of other future researchers. Also you can become a citizen archivist by volunteering to scan sets of materials for the use of all researchers.
Many of the records at the Archives have been microfilmed and are available for general use. But best of all many of the papers you may find can be brought to you in the researcher’s reading room where you can hold and read the actual documents that your ancestor may have held or that may have affected their life in numerous ways. Now that’s getting in touch with your family history!