Navigating NARA

By Lauren Eisenstodt Premium

Surfing the National Archives and Records Administration’s (NARA) Web site <> is like rummaging through a pack-rat relative’s attic: Rumor has it somewhere amid the boxes of untossables, Great-aunt Eloise has stashed records essential to your ancestral pursuit — but it may require scouring every nook and cranny to uncover them.

Similarly, you may have heard (perhaps via our annual 101 Best Web Sites roundups) that the NARA Web site has loads of genealogical gems. But the organizational method behind the madness eludes many genealogists. And though a recent redesign has made the site more aesthetically pleasing, it still can overwhelm the uninitiated. Never fear: We’ll walk you step by step through the NARA maze so you can make the most of this national treasure.


1. Go with your group.

The first step in navigating the NARA Web site is to ignore everything on the home page except the Genealogists/Family Historians link <>, which will lead you to all the tools you really need. Unlike the subscription sites < > and <>, the NARA Web site doesn’t specialize in online records, though it does have some. Instead, it aims to deliver articles and finding aids that detail NARA’s vast genealogical holdings and explain how to research those resources in person. Although NARA is headquartered in Washington, DC, it has 13 regional facilities scattered across the United States, each with an impressive collection of roots resources (see the December 2005 Family Tree Magazine). You also can rent or purchase NARA microfilm for use at your local library.

Start by getting acquainted with the types of records NARA holds. On the Genealogy/Family Historians page, click on the Research Topics for Genealogists link for guides to ethnic research; passenger lists; and census, immigration, land, military, naturalization and vital records. You also should read the FAQs at <> to learn the likelihood of finding information about yourself or a relative in NARA records (see Are You in the Archives?).

2. Conquer online catalogs.

Next, click on the Forms, Tools & Aids link at the left side of the Genealogists Family Historians page to access the Archival Research Catalog (ARC) <>, the in-progress index to NARA’s paper records. Introduced in 2002 — and unchanged by the redesign — it currently describes about 40 percent of NARA’s holdings nationwide.

NARA aims to link ARC’s bibliographic references to digital copies of the records — eventually. So far, the catalog offers electronic versions only for 15,000 textual documents, 58,000 pictures and 300 maps and charts. Under Search Hints for Selected Topics, hit the Genealogy link for help locating available genealogical sources, such as American Indian censuses, fugitive slave case papers and WWII records.

To begin searching ARC, click on the yellow Search button. You can try searching on an ancestor’s name, but unless he or she is famous, you probably won’t find much. Instead, try searching on a place name: Typing bull run into the keywords box and hitting Go brings up 37 hits, including digital photos and maps.

ARC certainly is useful, but you’ll probably get more mileage out of the improved Microfilm Catalog (accessible via the Forms, Tools & Aids link, or go to < microfilm> and click on the Use Our Microfilm Search button). The enhanced catalog combines the old Microfilm Locator with an online ordering system so you can identify films you want to rent or buy. You also may be able to find the same film at your local public library.

If you know the Microfilm Publication Number for the film you want, type it into the box and hit Search. Otherwise, you can search the catalog by keyword or browse by publication number. If you’re going to search, skip the basic option and go straight to the advanced form — it’ll help you avoid missing relevant films because you don’t know the right keywords. For example, a basic keyword search on immigration yields only 12 films, but if you select Immigrant & Passenger Arrival from the advanced search’s Subject Catalog pull-down menu, you get 65 films, mostly passenger lists.

When you find a film you’d like to view, click on its title. At the right side of the Publication Summary page, you’ll see a list of regional facilities that already have the microfilm on hand. Simply view the film at the facility closest to you, or click on the Continue to Order button to rent or buy the film for viewing elsewhere (click on the Frequently Asked Questions tab for ordering details).

3. Find your nearest regional facility.

If you don’t live near our nation’s capital, get to know the NARA facility closest to you. There you can view copies of many records available at NARA headquarters, as well as original records pertaining to your part of the country. To locate the nearest facility, click the Forms, Tools & Aids link, and then on Finding Aids for Holdings in the Regional Archives. You’ll get a list of all the facilities plus finding aids for each one. For contact information and other details, click on the facility name — for example, NARA’s Pacific Alaska Region (Seattle) — then look for the proper link on the left.

4. Dig into archival databases.

The final stop on our tour is the Access to Archival Databases (AAD) system, comprising some 85 million federal records. As before, click on the Forms, Tools & Aids link, or just go to <>. Hit the orange Search button, then click on the Genealogy/Personal History link to access databases with information about immigrants, wartime casualties, prisoners of war and more. To search a record group, click on the Search button next to its title. Type an ancestor’s name or other identifying information into the appropriate Enter Values box, and hit Search.


If one of your relatives fought in World War 11, don’t miss the WWII Army Enlistment Records database. You might find his full name, birth year, date and place of enlistment, branch, grade, civilian occupation and other details.

Unlike ARC, AAD covers only resources that originated in electronic formats, such as computerized indexes. (Learn more in the October 2003 Family Tree Magazine.) The AAD wasn’t part of NARA’s initial site overhaul, but it was revamped shortly after.

Now that you’ve found those old favorites and mastered the refurbished main stops, spend some time exploring on your own. You’re sure to uncover hidden treasures in all those nooks and crannies, just as you did in your pack-rat relative’s attic.

Cardinal Directions

Want a shortcut to NARA’s top online tools? Let this quick guide serve as your compass.


From the April 2006 issue of Family Tree Magazine.

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