If you’re a regular visitor to the History Hub, you’ll notice frequent suggestions to contact a particular reference office at the National Archives. As you can imagine, since the vast majority of the National Archives’ holdings are not available online, reference archivists are your gateway to the holdings of the National Archives, and reference requests are the keys. By the end of this post, the reference request process should be thoroughly demystified so that you can request with confidence!
(If you’re interested in locating military personnel records, that’s a different process that this blog won’t cover. The National Archives has forms and guidance for requesting veterans’ records available online on NARA’s “Veterans' Service Records” page.)
The most important thing any researcher can do is to start the request process by doing their due diligence- search the National Archives Catalog or check to see if books or articles on your topic cite National Archives sources. Is there a NARA blog post or Prologue article that talks about your subject? We’ve also provided some additional links at the bottom of this page that may be useful in starting your research. NARA resources will include contact information for the specific reference office responsible for the records in question. And of course, the History Hub is a great place to ask for help if you’re lost or overwhelmed!
As you’re doing research, an essential question to consider is “How does my topic relate to the records of the U.S. government? What federal entity would have been involved or interested?” For example: the National Archives generally does not hold vital records because they are usually created and held by local authorities. However, the National Archives may have records of the combat death of a soldier, or marriage records included in an immigration application. The difference is that these documents were created or collected as part of a function of the US federal government. This can be a helpful guide to narrow down specific agencies or record groups to search for your topic.
Once you’ve done your research, checked the catalog, and determined what kinds of records you’re interested in, it’s time to write your request. Your reference request should be clear, concise, and specific about what information you are seeking. (See below for examples of specific information that may be required to locate records. Include the agencies involved in your request.) Provide as much information as you know; federal organizations all maintain their records differently, so multiple types of information may be necessary to find records. Keep in mind that archivists only have a limited amount of time to search for records and respond to requests, so tailor your request to give them the information they need.
Here are some basic guidelines for what to include:
Information to include if you’re researching an individual or doing genealogical research:
-Name of the individual
-If military- branch of service, unit, service dates
-Federal agency or government organization that would have records relating to this person
Information to include if you’re researching a topic or an event:
-Locations and timeframes
-Organizations or federal agencies involved
-Names of relevant individuals (including the information listed above)
Information to include if you’re researching in a court case:
-The location of the federal or District of Columbia court where the case was filed
-Any case-related identifiers (plaintiff, defendant, case number, etc.)
-The year of the case or a general time frame
If you think the records are located in a specific record group or entry, be sure to include that in your request, as well as the National Archival Identifier (NAID) from any catalog entries that you think are relevant. Why you need the information (e.g., for a VA claim) can be useful information for the archivist as well. It’s also extremely helpful to include resources and institutions you’ve already consulted.
Once your request is submitted, expect it to take at least a few weeks to a month for archivists to research your request and send you a response. You may get a reply that the archivist was unable to find records that are responsive to your request, or that your topic would require extensive research, which needs to be done in person (either by you or someone researching on your behalf). But, hopefully, the response will be that records were found that relate to your request! If that is the case, your response will include a price quote for reproduction fees (for more information, check out NARA’s reproduction fee schedule) and instructions for ordering copies of the records.
These are the basics of the reference request process- for a more in-depth guide to doing research using the records of the National Archives, check out this Getting Started Overview. The National Archives also has several more specialized guides to doing research and requesting records on Archives.gov.
Helpful National Archives Links