#ResearcherProTip is a blog series written by the research room staff of the Archives II in College Park, MD. Have a question about the research process you’d like answered? Leave a comment below!
1. They don’t bring enough information
With over 2 million cubic feet of records at College Park alone, coming to do research with only a name or a topic just isn't enough. Before making a trip out to a NARA facility, do at least a basic search of the catalog or maybe ask on History Hub to get an idea of where to start. If you do find something in the catalog that you are interested in seeing, print out the whole entry. That will save time once you get to the archives. Otherwise, a reference archivist will need to re-search for the records you’re interested in.
(Photograph of America Historical Association Project Staff for the Selection and Description of Captured German Records, World War II Records Division, Alexandria, Virginia)
2. They don’t give themselves enough time
Let me be blunt: you can’t get all of your research done in one day. You just won’t. There’s nothing worse than traveling all the way to a NARA branch, going through the effort of registering, navigating the finding aids, requesting your records, then running out of time to actually look at them. Before you spend
time and money, see if it makes more sense to work through an intermediary. Some simple requests can be handled by requests to NARA reference staff. Professional researchers can also be hired to do research on your behalf.
3. They don’t check to see what services are available on Saturday
If a NARA facility is open on a weekend, services are usually limited. For instance, here at College Park, there are no pulls, limited finding aid assistance, and (most importantly) the cafeteria is closed. If you’re planning to do research on a weekend, call the archival facility to see what will be available during your visit.
4. They assume records will be available
Just because records are stored at the National Archives doesn’t mean they’ll be available for a researcher to look at. The records you’re interested in could be checked out to another researcher. They could be part of a digitization project or they may have to be requested through the lengthy FOIA process. They might be damaged and undergoing conservation work. No matter the topic, researchers need to plan for what they’ll do if they can’t see the records they’re interested in.
5. They don’t keep track of what they’ve looked at.
NARA keeps track of record pull requests entirely on paper. While this has some advantages (paper never has “network connectivity issues”), once a pull is returned to the stacks, the paperwork is sent off to long term storage pretty much never to be seen again. If you need to know what you’ve requested on the past, it’s the researcher’s responsibility to keep track of that information.
BONUS TIP - They don’t check to see what equipment you can bring and what we have available
Did you know that NARA has rules about what kinds of equipment researchers can use? It turns out, there are a lot of them! Printers, wand scanners or scanners with an auto-feed option, certain camera and tablet stands, and equipment with external light sources are all banned. If you aren’t sure about your equipment, contact the NARA branch and ask before you come!