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Hi Steven -
A great place to start is our Catalog. This can help you figure out what series you'd like to look at. Once you've started an initial search, on the left-hand side, you can limit your results to the National Archives - Washington, DC - Archives I Textual Reference, or conversely also at the Washington, DC location, the Center for Legislative Archives. I would only limit by this if you know your records are there.
The National Archives Building in Washington, DC houses textual records relating to genealogy, American Indians, pre-World War I Army and pre-World War II Navy & Marine Corps, Freedman's Bureau, War Relocation Authority (WRA), Immigration & Naturalization (INS), Veteran's Affairs, U.S. Coast Guard, Post Office, Customs Service, Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the District of Columbia, the Federal courts.
The Center for Legislative Archives holds the records of Congress (contact firstname.lastname@example.org for these records).And there are also records of Vice President Gore and Cheney there (contact email@example.com for these records)
Each catalog entry will tell you the creator of the records, the dates, how they are arranged, any access or use restrictions (such as personal privacy for access, or copyright for use). Some entries will have a brief description of the records within the series. Finally, at the bottom it will tell you how much of the records there are (number of boxes and how many linear inches there are).
There will be a contact information bit at the bottom for the records as well. The email for the National Archives Building is firstname.lastname@example.org. They can help you narrow what series you would like to view, as well as point you in the direction of any collections that are not in the catalog, but might be of interest.
Best of luck in researching!
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Steve, There is a very large collection of paper finding aids at both NARA Washington DC and NARA College Park. It will boggle the mind of a first time NARA researcher to see how much knowledge about the collection is on paper and not yet put in the computer. That said, it is interesting to dig through the collection and figure out a methodical way to make progress.
In addition to searching the catalog, the "Guide to Federal Records" which is organized using the record group number, gives a nice logical breakdown. The paper finding aids supplement this guide typically through an inventory list that has numerical 'inventory' entry numbers. The inventory entry numbers are used at NARA to find the boxes stored on the stacks. Here is a link for the Department of State records which are mostly at College Park. http://www.archives.gov/research/guide-fed-records/groups/059.html
Published finding aids are also listed here:
Some can be downloaded, others may be available in local libraries or even online through third parties.
You may also wish to contact reference staff for information-- questions submitted via this form are routed to the appropriate reference staff:
Hope that helps!
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In addition to the links provided in previous responses, I recommend that you send an email to the corresponding facility you plan to visit and ask for the information required to find what you're looking for: https://www.archives.gov/contact/
Having worked in reference from 2006-2014, I can tell you that researchers who arrived with this information were several steps ahead of the game and their visits were more productive than researchers who came in starting from scratch.
Hope this helps!