Navigating the National Archives

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is the agency responsible for maintaining and providing access to historic records created by the federal government. To successfully plan and execute research at NARA facilities, genealogists need a basic understanding of what types of records are held at NARA, and how they are arranged and organized.

NARA’s Records
Records are held at NARA’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. and also at regional facilities, record centers, Presidential libraries, and affiliated archives located throughout the United States. Holdings include textual records (manuscripts) and non-textual records (still pictures, motion pictures, maps, audio files, and more). Many of the records held by NARA are still in their original format, while others have been digitized or microfilmed.

All of NARA’s holdings are arranged into record groups. Each record group corresponds to a specific government agency or department, and includes records originally created by that entity. For example, Record Group (RG) 29 contains records of the Bureau of the Census, and Record Group 404 contains records of the United States Military Academy. The records created by some larger government agencies or departments may be arranged into several record groups, and separated by category.

Record groups are further divided into series and sub-series, depending on how the records were arranged by the agency or department. For example, the series Personal and School Sheets of Cadet Candidates, 1899–1947, can be found within Record Group 404, Records of the United States Military Academy. Specific items or records of interest may be found within a series or sub-series, such as the school sheet for cadet candidate Harold Geiger.

Finding Aids
The National Archives has made numerous finding aids available to researchers, including inventories, preliminary inventories, descriptive pamphlets, special lists, guides, and catalogs.

Guides to Record Groups
The National Archives website lists 584 record groups by topic and by record group number. The site also provides a searchable web version of Robert Matchette’s 1995 compilation, Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives of the United States, which is updated periodically and includes information about record groups acquired after the book’s publication.

Inventories, Preliminary Inventories, and Special Lists
Inventories and preliminary inventories have been compiled for many record groups. They contain an introduction to and a history of the agency or department that created the records. Inventories and preliminary inventories also describe the contents of the record group in a series by series format, and assign an entry number to each series. They provide valuable details on the arrangement of the series, the type of information that can be found in the records, any inconsistencies or restrictions within the series, and more. For example, Preliminary Inventory 185 for Record Group 404, Records of the United States Military Academy, includes the following information for the series Personal and School Sheets of Cadet Candidates, 1899–1947:

…This form, completed by the candidate, contains a variety of data relating to his academic and family background; for example, the State and district from which he was nominated or appointed; date of appointment; legal residence; secondary school or college attended; subjects studied and textbooks used; athletics in which he participated (after 1921) and extracurricular activities and school offices held (after 1942).…[1]

Special lists are more specific than inventories and provide information at the item or record level. A list of inventories, preliminary inventories, and special lists can be found on the NARA website.

Descriptive Pamphlets
Descriptive pamphlets exist for most of NARA’s microfilm publications. They provide details on the collection that has been microfilmed (including the record group and series), background information relevant to how and why the records were created, specifics on how the records are arranged, and other details such as editorial conventions, related records, relevant publications, and more. Descriptive pamphlets can be found on the first roll of the microfilm publication, and are also available on the NARA website and at many NARA facilities.

The National Archives Catalog can be used to identify record groups and pinpoint specific series of interest. The catalog entry for Record Group 29, Records of the Bureau of the Census, 1790–2007, includes 822 series. Archival descriptions can be viewed for each series. The list can also be narrowed down by the NARA facility where the material is held, the type of material (textual records, maps, or still photographs, for example), or by the date range of the material. For microfilmed publications, the catalog provides the microfilm number; for records available online, the catalog provides a list of partner organizations (such as Fold3 or that have digitized the records. For example, Population Schedules for the 1850 Census is one of the series in Record Group 29. The catalog provides the series’ entry number in the record group’s preliminary inventory and the microfilm publication number, and also notes that the series is available on The catalog is also useful for finding records or items of interest that may not be in the record group expected. For example, a search for “United States Military Academy” brings up numerous series that are part of Record Group 404, as well as series that are part of Record Group 94, Records of the Adjutant General’s Office.

Together, these finding aids are vital to identifying record groups and narrowing down specific series and items of interest within those record groups. They also provide researchers with the details needed to access the records, either in person or through a request to the NARA facility where the records are held.

Learning More
Genealogists interested in learning about what records their ancestors may have created as a result of their interactions with the federal government will benefit from several educational opportunities. Each fall, the National Genealogical Society sponsors a research trip to several repositories in the Washington, D.C. area, including the National Archives. Registration opens in March and sells out quickly. Another opportunity for researchers is the National Institute of Genealogical Research, a weeklong course held each year in June in Washington, D.C. The institute focuses on genealogy, federal records, and area repositories.

[1] Stanley P. Tozeski, compiler, Preliminary Inventory of the Records of the United States Military Academy (Washington, D.C.: National Archives & Records Service, 1976).

  1. March 26, 2018 10:34 am

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