Doing Research at a National Archives Facility

In many cases, depending upon the type of research you or your students are doing, it might become necessary to actually step across the threshold of the National Archives.  Thousands upon thousands of records are stored there that have not yet been scanned or placed online. Some may never be.

There are 15 research facilities of the National Archives across the United States.  The buildings don’t look exactly the same.  Some were built especially for the National Archives, but some may be as humble as converted government warehouses.  However, the experience inside is largely the same.

The National Archives Building in Washington DC.
The National Archives Building in Washington, DC
The National Archives at College Park (Maryland)
The National Archives at College Park (Maryland)
Exterior of the National Archives at Seattle
The National Archives at Seattle

We want students to visit us, as well as adults.  National Archives records are waiting for resourceful researchers to help discover the truth about history.  The documents themselves may have been sitting for decades, untouched, waiting to be uncovered.

When entering any National Archives a facility, there may be a security officer greeting you at the door and specific procedures to follow.  Someone will tell you what to do. Occasionally, you may simply walk into a lobby with an attendant at a desk.  Either way, with very little effort you will get in. (If you are younger than 14, we would like you to come with an adult.)

Microfilm Room and Attendant at the National Archives at Seattle
Microfilm Research Room at the National Archives at Seattle

Once you are inside, you will need to speak with someone about your project.  The attendants and archivists will help you.  If you will be looking at original documents, they will have you fill out a researcher application, provide some identification, and read some rules of conduct in order to receive a researcher card.  Then you may narrow down your search by reviewing “finding aids.”  Once your materials are identified, the attendant will disappear into the “stacks” and ask you to come back at a specified time to retrieve your materials.

Of course, the archives “stacks,” shown below, are not open to the public.  Only the archives staff members have access to them.

“Stacks” of documents in a facility of the National Archives
“Stacks” of Documents in the National Archives

The boxes on these shelves often hold what appear to be ordinary file folders.  These files are from the file cabinets of federal agencies and are stored in the Archives for various reasons.  One of those reasons is their importance to future historians!

Archival file box from The National Archives at Anchorage.
Archival file box from the National Archives at Anchorage
File folder example from The National Archives at Anchorage.
File folder from the National Archives at Anchorage

Other types of records include photographs, maps, and drawings (at all facilities), and motion picture film and audio tapes (only at our College Park location).

For some of the facilities, it is best to make an appointment with an archivist in advance.  That way, you will have some boxes already pulled from the “stacks” when you arrive. Advance appointments are not available at all locations.

You can find more information, hours of operation, contact email addresses and phone numbers, and a map of our locations at



6 thoughts on “Doing Research at a National Archives Facility

  1. Who invented the helicopter harness that would keep gunners in place and in the helicopter durning a hard turning durning the Vietnam war?

    1. Assuming there is a FEDERAL record of the invention, you can begin to narrow your search and figure out which of the 15 National Archives facilities most likely holds the records you are seeking by going first to the Online Catalog at It is best to keep the search terms a little broad because what you are seeking may be on just one or two single documents in a file folder. I used the search terms ” helicopter AND patent ” assuming there would be a government patent for the invention and found several 1) items, 2) groups of documents called “series” and 3) a list of “authorities.” The Authority list consists of the federal agencies that created the documents. If you look at the authority records, you will often see some great descriptions of what sorts of information is in the records themselves. If you click on the “series descriptions” on that same page, you will see that most of the records of this type are held in the College Park, Maryland facility. Here is where you step through the door of the archives! The answer to your question may be there. If you live too far away to visit, you can ask your question on the form at and an archivist will help you figure out what to do next.

  2. Frank, also try searching through Google patents.

    If you are able to locate a patent number, please contact the National Archives at Kansas City for patents granted before 1973 and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for more recent patents.

  3. Is it possible to do genealogy research at the National Archives in Atlanta for family that originates in Georgia? What kind of information would be available at the Archives for genealogists? How would I go about getting access to this information? Thank you.

    1. You definitely can visit The National Archives at Atlanta for genealogy originating in Georgia, but ALL of our facilities across the United States are well prepared for genealogists from all over the US, including Georgia. All provide personal assistance and materials, either online or on microfilm, for the US Census (and some other censuses), immigration and naturalization, military records, ethnic materials and lots of other important records from all 50 states. So if you are in San Francisco, for instance, you can search for Georgia records in the genealogy room at the National Archives at San Bruno.

      Just walk in! The hours of operation for every facility are listed at . Just click on the one you want to visit.

      The National Archives at Atlanta does house original (paper) records from Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee. You can get an idea about what records are there by visiting Many can be useful for your genealogy project.

  4. Yes, Tanica, you can access genealogical records at the National Archives at Atlanta. Most visiting genealogists start off using our Public Access computers where you can access a variety of national and even world-wide databases. As far as original records relating to genealogy in our facility, we have all 24 million World War I draft cards, for example. There are other records groups that may be helpful as well. Concerning specific Georgia state and local records, we do not possess them but the good news is that the Georgia State Archives is right next door and they do have those records. If you have more questions, feel free to contact me at

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