Thursday, October 20, 2011

Day One at NARA

Amazing, overwhelming, intimidating, fun, exciting, exasperating, and exhausting are just a few of the adjectives I would use to describe my day of genealogical research at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.  No one can prepare you fully.  You just have to go there and experience it first hand.

The Metro train ride into D.C. from Alexandria went off without a hitch.  It is definitely the best way to get around up here!  So when we arrived on Pennsylvania Avenue, were were not stressed from traffic or trying to locate parking.

National Archives and Record Administration, 700 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Washington, D.C.

Before we ever entered the National Archives building, a security guard out front asked us if she could help us.  I don't think that is what she meant so much as "What is your business here?"  However, I told her we were there to research, and she told us to go on in.  The first item of business is going through a security check point.  No pat downs here, thank goodness.  Then you sign in and are given a visitor/research badge to wear.  If you have a camera, scanner, or other electronic equipment, you present them to the security guard at the desk and the serial numbers are written on a form.  This form and the equipment will be checked against each other when you leave the building to protect against theft, etc.

When these steps were completed, we continued to the lobby and inquired at the desk where to begin.  We were directed into a research room to receive our Researcher IDs.  We had to watch a PowerPoint presentation and fill in our identification information.  Then our photos were taken and we were given our very own National Archives Research ID cards!  We are now official!  The cards are good for one year.  Then we proceeded to get a locker to store our belongings.

We started our research by going to the Finding Aids area to inquire about having land case files pulled for us.  The next pull time - 11 AM - was only 15 minutes away by this time so we were racing the clock.  An employee assisted us in filling out Research Service Slips for the files we wanted pulled.  I managed to get all of mine in for the 11 AM pull; Ginger got half of hers in and was able to get the balance turned in for the 1:30 PM pull.  That was no problem because we were still upstairs in Room 203, the Central Research Room - working with the first pulled land case files we were brought.

It takes about an hour for the requested records to be pulled for researchers, so we went to the microfilm area to learn the ropes there.  It was pretty easy and straightforward, and the employees were very nice and helpful.  The time passes very quickly at NARA so before we knew it, it was time to head upstairs to view our land case files.  That was OK - we could look at microfilm later.

The Central Research Room, Room 203 on the second floor, which is where you go to view original documents, is another security heavy area.  There is a security guard just inside the door that has to scan your Research ID every single time you enter or leave the room.  They also check loose papers you bring in and in my case, asked me to open my Flip Pal each time.  The papers you bring in have to be stamped so they can be differentiated from the copies you may make while there.  We sat at research desks and waited for our documents to arrive.  When they did, it was an out-of-body experience for me to handle the paperwork from the mid-1800s that my great-great-grandfather handled and signed!  I had about 10-12 land case files to pull and copy.  There were a couple in which the pages had stuck together so I had to scan those on my Flip Pal rather than try to copy them on the copier.  In one way or another, I got a copy of every single page of each file.  I will share some of those here in future posts.

You are allowed to leave your research desk and all of your research for up to 60 minutes at a time.  So we took a break about 2 PM and went down to the cafe to have some lunch.  Once we were fortified with food, we went right back to work.

Now at this point, the experienced among you maybe asking, "Liz, why didn't you use your digital camera and NARA's nifty camera tripod stations to photograph the records?"  Well, I'm still a little old-fashioned in my research, and while I love technology, I do not love how my camera produces photos without flash.  (Flash photography is NOT allowed.)  So I would rather take the extra steps (and money) to copy the paperwork on the copiers at NARA, and then scan and save it to my computer when I return home.  It's also instant gratification because I can tell right away if my paper copy came out to my satisfaction.  With my camera, while there is a picture preview window, I can still be fooled sometimes and not realize the photograph is not up to par until after I get home.  Of course, by then, I'm 5 hours away and unable to get another image.

When I finished copying my land case files, I went to the desk and a research librarian placed all of my paperwork, both the papers I had brought in with me and the copies I had made, into a green, locked bag (like those deposit bags business use, except larger).  Those bags are opened by a security guard and your papers are given to you only as you are leaving the building at the end of your research day.  Anyway, I returned downstairs to the microfilm area to begin researching military records.  I had done some research at home and knew most of the roll numbers of the microfilm I wanted to view.  That enabled me to go right to looking up the location of those microfilm in the catalog provided in the research area and pull film to view.  I prepared requests for War of 1812 service records and pension files to be pulled overnight for us to view tomorrow.  I did not find bounty land grands or pension files for my Revolutionary or Civil War soldiers.  And while I finally found one small reference to George Schwalls in the Confederate Navy records, the code was undecipherable to not only me, but several of the reference librarians!  So I remain at the same brick wall with him.

My day was far from smooth sailing.  I forgot batteries for my Flip Pal.  I had an extra set of rechargeable for my camera, but when I inserted them into the scanner, they were dead.  So I had to take the batteries out of my camera and put them in the Flip Pal while holding my breath they would hold up through the land case files.  I went upstairs to view those files and forgot to add money to my ID card for making copies.  The machine in Room 203 that does this was not working, so I had to go back downstairs to the Cashier's Office to add $10 to my Researcher ID.  (This works as a debit card and makes paying for copies so much easier.)  Then when I went back downstairs a few hours later to view microfilm, I had left the locker key with Ginger.  Another trip upstairs and back down for that.  Some days my clumsiness/forgetfulness demands a full workout. 

I am sure tomorrow will be much easier now that I "know the ropes."  It will be mostly military records day.  Even if I don't make any earth-shattering discoveries, it will be great to add to my collection of information about my soldier ancestors.  Until then...


  1. Thanks for sharing. I didn't know the nara procedures for so involved!

    I can totally relate your concerns about photographing documents. Nothing worse than getting home and realizing the photograph of a document is out of focus.

    Looking forward to hearing about the rest of your experiences.

  2. Good ol George!!! Sounds amazing, wish I was there!!

  3. Sounds like an exciting day. I hope you find some interesting military records today. I received two pension files this week and one really leaves me wondering about the soldier. But I'll blog about that. Let us know what you find! Good luck!

  4. Wow, it would seem overwhelming if you weren't prepared and it sounds like you were.

    The only time I've been to the National Archives was to see the Declaration of Independence. Sigh.

  5. Great post! I'm loving the play-by-play by both you and Ginger. I hope day 2 provides much research success.