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Archives.gov: Navigating the National Archives Website

By Melissa Barker Premium
Globe icon over a photo of the US National Archives building.

In this article:

Archives.gov Homepage

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Resources for Genealogists Page

Search

National Archives Catalog

Access to Archival Databases (AAD)

Microfilm Catalog

NARA Finding Aids

Ordering Copies of Records

NARA Blogs

U.S. National Archives, Regional Facilities & Presidential Libraries

Related Reads

The U.S. National Archives (NARA) has BILLIONS of records available to genealogy researchers. Not all NARA records are available online but there are many databases and selected record sets that can be accessed and viewed on NARA’s robust website, Archives.gov. Every genealogist should know their way around the website and how to find the records available. Researchers will find indexes, finding aids and actual digitized records that could help you with your family history research. There are records on the NARA website that can not be found on any other website or database.

The NARA is constantly processing records, indexing records, digitizing records and making these records available to the public. It is important that researchers understand that the NARA website should be consulted often as there are records being added to the website often.

Archives.gov Homepage

When you go to the U.S. National Archives website you will first see the homepage. Like most websites, Archives.gov a main front page to introduce the website and what they offer. Stop and look at what is available on this one page before going any further. The NARA has generated a main page that contains a lot of information and links to explore. Here are some highlights from the main page:

  • Includes categories that are the most accessed according to NARA’s statistics
  • Link to Veteran’s Service Records
  • Link to America’s Founding Documents
  • At the bottom of the landing page are “quick links” to pages on the NARA website
  • At the top, to the right, are links to NARA Blogs, Bookmark/Share and Contact Us
Screenshot of Archives.gov homepage
Archives.gov homepage

Resources for Genealogists Page

At the bottom section of the NARA landing page is a clickable link titled “Genealogists”. Click on this link and it will take you to a page FULL of genealogical information. This page also includes a PowerPoint presentation that you can watch to help you navigate this section of the website and it titled Beginning Your Genealogical Research at the National Archives and Records Administration. There are also several YouTube video links to introduce researches to various record groups and are a great way to learn about these record groups. Just some of the information that can be found on this page are:

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  • Start Your Family Research section has links to: Start Your Genealogy Research, Genealogy Resources, Charts and Forms, Free Databases at National Archives Facilities and Videos on YouTube
  • Popular Topic Section has links to: Census Records, Military Service Records, Immigration Records, Naturalization Records, More Topics and Record Types
  • Events Section has links to: Genealogy Workshops Nationwide, Genealogy Events in the Washington, DC Area and National Archives Calendar
  • Tools for Genealogists: Catalog Guide for Genealogists, Electronic Records for Genealogy, Digitized by Partners, Microfilm Catalog, Reference Reports, More Online Research Tools
  • Ask Genealogy Questions on History Hub-A great place to ask your genealogy question
  • Genealogy Related Articles
  • Caring for Your Family Records
  • Order Copies of Records
Screenshot of Archives.gov Resources for Genealogists landing page
Resources for Genealogists landing page

The NARA website, just like most genealogy websites, has a “Search” feature. While search features are not 100% reliable in giving you complete results for your surname on the entire website, I encourage genealogists to use this feature on the NARA website. It could produce results that will lead you to records for your ancestors and save you a lot of search time on the website. Here are a couple of search tips:

  • Search by putting in your surnames and see what results you get
  • The list of results will include links to click on and explore the surname in record sources
  • Search by place name to find records and information about the areas where your ancestors lived
  • Search by subject or event. For instance, if your ancestors were living in an area where the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) built a new dam and created flooding that covered the place where your ancestor’s lived, there could be records showing that TVA relocated the families.
  • Some results will give you information located in other U.S. National Archives facilities across the U.S.

National Archives Catalog

The U.S. National Archives says about their catalog “The National Archives Catalog is the online public portal to our records and information about our records. The catalog currently provides access to over 2 million electronic records currently in the Electronic Records Archives (ERA), which are not available elsewhere online.” The NARA catalog is a robust source for genealogists to get a good understanding of what the holdings are of this repository. Here are some insights into the NARA catalog:

  • National Archives Catalog is the online catalog for NARA’s holdings in Washington, D.C., at its regional facilities and Presidential libraries throughout the United States
  • The catalog contains descriptions of about 90 percent of the records at NARA
  • There are more than 2 million digitized records
  • Searching the catalog also searches all web pages on archives.gov, regional National Archives and all Presidential Libraries
National Archives Catalog search box
National Archives Catalog search box

Access to Archival Databases (AAD)

AAD allows users to search through more than 250 million unique records contained in databases and indexes. Keep in mind that no search feature is full proof and you may need to go to the individual database to do a complete search for your ancestor. Some records that are represented in the AAD are:

  • Combat casualties from the Vietnam and Korean Wars
  • Prisoner of War Records from World War II and the Korean War
  • Immigration Records
  • If you find a surname in an AAD search, this will lead you to further research in textual records at NARA facilities.
  • A researcher should conduct a surname search not only on the main landing page “Search” but also the Access to Archival Databases (AAD)
Access to Archival Databases landing page on Archives.gov
Access to Archival Databases landing page

Microfilm Catalog

Like most libraries and archives, NARA has miles and miles of microfilm. Searching the microfilm catalog will help researchers locate information about microfilmed records and where they can be accessed. Many genealogical records are still found on microfilm and knowing how to use this feature of the NARA website can be a bit daunting, here a couple of directions to help make the search more productive:

  • Click on the “Microfilm” Tab
  • Search by microfilm publication number, title, record group and record group title
  • Browsing NARA’s Microfilm Catalog could be overwhelming, so try to search with a specific surname or subject
Archives.gov Microfilm landing page
Archives.gov Microfilm landing page

NARA Finding Aids

Some of the most wonderful genealogical records can be found in Manuscript Collections. By reading the descriptions of the collections located in the NARA Finding Aids, you will know what is available in each collection. A Finding Aid is a document produced by an archivist that gives a box-by-box, folder-by-folder description of a collection of records. The finding aids at the NARA website can be found listed in the catalog either by surname or subject name.

  • There are several sections to a Finding Aid and each one should be read so no piece of information is missed about a collection
  • The section that will tell the genealogist a box-by-box, folder-by-folder description of what is in the collection is the “Contents Listing”
  • Use the NARA Catalog to determine which record collection you want to explore
  • Once you find records that you would like to request copies of, use the “Obtaining Copies of Records” tab on the landing page of the website if you can’t visit the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

Ordering Copies of Records

The U.S. National Archives allows researchers to request copies of records they find referenced on their website. It is important that you know as specifically as possible what records you would like when you fill out the online form. I would encourage genealogists to order records from NARA. It may take time to get the records in the mail or by email but if you are not able to travel to Washington D.C. to get the records yourself, this option you can do from home is the next best thing. Here are some tips for using the online NARA order form:

  • You can fill out the order form provided and mail in your request
  • You can order online electronically
  • The order forms will have the prices for the specific record you are requesting
  • You have the option to receive the records by mail or by email
  • Be prepared to wait to receive your records

NARA Blogs

There is a clickable link at the top of the NARA website main page that simply says “Blogs”. Clicking on that link will take you to a page filled with 19 different blogs they publish. Anyone can subscribe to any of the blogs listed to get up-to-date information on the subject covered by each blog. These blogs share news, upcoming events and proposed projects from the NARA. A great way to keep up with new records sets becoming available on the NARA website.

U.S. National Archives, Regional Facilities & Presidential Libraries

The U.S. National Archives is vast, not only its online presence but the records they have at their facilities. Anyone researching a particular surname should be using NARA to their utmost benefit. In addition to surname research, NARA also has records at their facilities concerning Native Americans, NASA, Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Suffrage and so much more.

NARA encompasses more than one facility in Washington, D.C. There are regional national archives and Presidential Library websites available to all genealogy researchers. These websites are just as robust as the main NARA website and can hold genealogical and historical records that can help you with your genealogy research.

Regional Archives include:

National Archives at Atlanta, Georgia
National Archives at Boston, Massachusetts
National Archives at Chicago, Illinois
National Archives at College Park, Maryland
National Archives at Denver, Colorado
National Archives at Fort Worth, Texas
National Archives at Kansas City, Missouri:
National Archives at New York City, New York
National Archives at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
National Archives at Riverside, California
National Archives at San Francisco, California
National Archives at Seattle, Washington
National Archives at St. Louis, Missouri

15 Presidential Libraries throughout the United States:

Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum
Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum
Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum
Dwight D. Eisenhower Pres. Library and Museum
John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library and Museum
Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum
Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library
Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum
Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum
George Bush Presidential Library and Museum
William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum
George W. Bush Pres. Library and Museum
Barack Obama Pres. Library (Not Open to the Public)

First Fully Digitized Presidential Library

Donald J. Trump Presidential Library

The NARA website is so large that every time I go there, I find something new about my family or about an historical event that took place in the area where I live. Genealogists should use the NARA website anytime they are looking for information on their ancestors and the areas where their ancestors lived. I would suggest that the NARA website be bookmarked and visited often during genealogy research.

Sometimes, you have to take your research offline. Check out these useful tips for ordering records from brick-and-mortar institutions like archives and libraries.
With so many genealogy websites available for your family history quest, how do you know which sites are the best? Leave it to our genealogy experts!

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