The National Archives is currently digitizing microfilmed records; once digitized, publications are added to NARA’s primary online Catalog covering all federal agencies. Foreign Affairs researchers, however, may benefit from beginning their search in the more specific Microfilm Catalog.
For Department of State (RG 59) publications, the Microfilm Catalog lists a wealth of research possibilities. Popular publications include the main series that comprise the pre-1910 segments of the Central Files (Instructions, Despatches, Notes, Letters, and the Numerical and Minor Files), as well as heavily used series from the twentieth century. If you are looking for a particular country or a type of correspondence, you can use the Microfilm Catalog to quickly narrow your search.
For example, if you are starting a research project relating to Germany, you may be interested to see what records from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are available on microfilm and what has been digitized. One quick way to narrow your search is to use the Advanced Search option. Here, you can put your country name into the “Publication Title” field, and 59 into the “Record Group” Field. This search will give you 66 results; each publication relates to Germany in some way. From that list, you can browse the titles to see what is available, and narrow your search accordingly.
It is important to note that not all records will be as easily searchable, but if you know the type of correspondence that you are looking for, you can search using specific terms. For example, you may be interested in Instructions from the Department of State. Before 1801, the Department maintained Consular and Diplomatic correspondence together. After 1801, the correspondence was separate. You can learn this in the microfilm catalog by doing a quick search for “Instructions.”
You can use the Microfilm Catalog to quickly determine if there is a finding aid for the publication. Often called Descriptive Pamphlets (DPs), these finding aids include complete roll lists and usually include historical and contextual information about the publication. You can find them on the right hand side of each publication’s page. For the “Instructions” example, this will be important because the finding aid will let you know which rolls pertain to your research and whether you will need to narrow your search by location or by date.
If a series is digitally available, you can learn that from your search results. The main results screen has a column called “Digital Availability;” if the publication was added to the National Archives Catalog, that column will note such availability. It will also note if a publication was digitized by one of our partners, like Ancestry.com or Fold3.com. In these cases, the availability column will say “Available by Partners.” If the publication is not yet digitized, you can determine quickly which facilities hold copies of the publication. Many publications are held at regional NARA facilities that may be closer to you.
When you place an order for microfilm (these days they come on a DVD or by electronic transfer), you may use the Microfilm Catalog to learn the publication number and rolls of interest. Therefore, when you contact the holding facility, you can be as specific as possible.*
Many researchers do not realize how many National Archives microfilm publications have already been purchased for use by university and research libraries. You can use the finding aid and publication title (often different from the titles used in the NARA Catalog) to search for the publication via interlibrary loan offices at a university or local research library. You might even find the publication on worldcat.org. Please note that the National Archives does not participate in interlibrary loan. All publications that circulate by interlibrary loan were purchased from NARA by other institutions.
If you have any questions about working with foreign affairs records in the Microfilm Catalog, please email the Textual Reference Branch at Archives II for more information: firstname.lastname@example.org.
*At the time of posting, reproduction services have not yet resumed at the National Archives due to the COVID-19 public health crisis. Please check back for updates to our services.