Myrt’s Day at the Archives

. Checking in as a researcher requires going through metal detection screening and presenting one’s NARA Researcher card at the sign-in desk. My camera was inspected, and a new Equipment Receipt was issued to permit my carrying it further into the facility. These expire every 90 days, and it was time for this one to be renewed.


Yesterday I completed two reports of last Friday’s look-up research trip to the National Archives at 700 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, DC. I had previously done such work for several clients, and found they enjoyed hearing about the process of ordering and viewing their ancestor’s files. Here are segments from those reports:

National Archives (US) Researcher's Entrance


Here’s how the day went on Friday, 8 April 2011:

I snagged a 1-hour car ride from our home in Alexandria, Virginia to the main entrance of the National Archives I building, entering on the Pennsylvania Avenue side. Checking in as a researcher requires going through metal detection screening and presenting one’s NARA Researcher card at the sign-in desk. My camera was inspected, and a new Equipment Receipt was issued to permit my carrying it further into the facility. These expire every 90 days, and it was time for this one to be renewed. The contents of all bags and backpacks are subject to search and for that reason I always travel light.

Non-essentials like hats and coats are kept in lockers near the restrooms on the main floor. I always clip the locker key to the flash drive lanyard around my neck. See: http://www.archives.gov/dc-metro/washington/researcher-info.html#orientation I already have a NARA Researcher Card, so no need for the orientation and photography procedure.

I went directly to the reading room where I used the print-out of my client’s emails to complete the form requesting military pension files. In 2023, I’d still use this method, so I could make notes as necessary on the paperwork. I made the 11am pull time, which meant I could anticipate delivery of my client’s files within 60-90 minutes. I filled up the intervening time ordering federal land records, my new focus record group at this time. My goal is to learn more about them. At lunchtime, visit the Charters Café on the lower level, 1 is open to researchers from 9:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. There’s also a small seating area with vending machines.

To enter #203 the Textual Reading Room (I call it “original documents reading room”) one takes the elevator upstairs. One must show his NARA Researcher Card, and only a few papers are permitted, a camera, laptop, and scanner. Sign in at the security desk, and before going to a workstation, each of the pages I brought with me were inspected and stamped by an employee. This expedites leaving, as those documents are clearly not stolen, as the stamp on arrival indicates. I usually print those “notes” like the client’s email request on bright orange paper, for me to easily distinguish them from other papers in my workspace.

Once checked-in to the room, I located a vacant workspace, one of four to a table (two facing two) divided by a 4-inch-high frame on three sides so my pages wouldn’t fall into the workspace of my neighbors. At all times, one’s workspace is clearly visible to the 4-6 employees who pace around the room watching researchers.



I placed my notes to claim my space, and then went in an adjoining room where pension files are distributed to researchers. Often there is a line, but there were only two other researchers ahead of me, so my wait for your ancestor’s file wasn’t long. I had to sign a copy of my request form with date/time/initials stating I had received the file. On return of the file, I signed similarly.
Arriving back to my workstation, I opened the file to determine if it was the correct one. I had to wait about 15 minutes until a friend completed her work at NARA’s camera copy stand before I could proceed. I used the NARA copy stand to hold my trusty Cannon PowerShot A630 (without flash). By default, my camera saves images in .jpg format. You will find the Picasa folder has those original .jpg files and the same images in .tiff format, much better for cropping purposes. This afternoon, I used PaintShop Pro X3 Version 13 and did the conversions in a single batch. I am providing both sets in case the PaintShop Pro hiccuped.


See photo at upper right of my workspace. A” shows man working at the camera copy stand, “B” shows the glass panel separating workspaces on a table, and “C” shows a sample Hollinger box with multiple homestead files folded twice and filed vertically. The laminated “One Box One Folder” card is a place holder for a file I’ve removed from the box.


I also make a point of photographing “D” label on the box, with “E” some identification of the related ancestors name. This facilitates source citations that are made after leaving the Archives.



When leaving the Textual Reading Room, my papers were inspected and placed in a locked green zippered bag, now standard fare for all researchers. My Researcher ID Card was scanned. The process is streamlined. Now our photocopy expenses are added to that Researcher Card, so one is not juggling 2 or more cards at a time.

I retrieved my personal items from the locker room and waited in line for about 45 minutes while others ahead of me had their “green bags” opened, and other items inspected. Security is tighter than ever, but no worries. This was a productive day. I took the Metro home and survived rush hour.


My policy is to set the camera once with no adjusting to accommodate the differing sizes of pages from your ancestor’s file. If I did that, each page would appear the same size as the others, where clearly, they are not. However, one should crop the messy grey/black grid copy stand table from the final image of the docs before attaching them to each ancestor in one’s genealogy software.
You will notice I have several duplicate shots, where I thought at the time, I might be able to focus better, but I can barely tell the difference. I trust you will remove the unnecessary duplicates. [I’d do all the cropping and duplicate removal, but then this client would be paying me for that additional time.]
I make a point of photographing every side of a document that has writing on it. If the back is blank, I didn’t copy it.
Some pages were old-style onion skin copies of typed letters, where the onion skin is actually shrinking. I used a white piece of paper in the background to attempt to bring the lettering into view.
Items in Civil War Pension files are usually no longer bound to the file folder across the top, and so the pages get “rearranged” by “helpful” researchers. This is in stark contrast to some of the federal homestead files that I’ve worked with where two three-inch brads hold the pages in place like a 20th century “Acco” clip would have done. In the case of the land files I’ve accessed, they are found bound to the folder, and one must ask a NARA staffer to remove all brads, straight pins and staples for photocopying or digitizing. Not so with an ancestor’s pension file.
When NARA sent you the “complete file” I am not sure if you received color scanned images or photocopies, the latter striping everything down to black and white. I particularly like the color pics of these documents. You see the “aging” of the pages from use when they were kept in a folded vertical file system of old.





As I mentioned in an earlier email to my client, if the widow makes a claim, the paperwork for the deceased soldier’s pension file is included as evidence of her eligibility. With two separate numbers, it makes it seem like there would be two separate folders.



His ancestor’s file had a form on three of the four pages and was signed on what is numbered “page 6 of deposition a” but since I copied every page including blank sides of pages and remembering that I didn’t skip any pages in the file, the pages are just out of order. Hopefully, the client can piece these together from the pages in the rest of the file. [Remember, Ol’ Myrt’s lookup assignment did not analysis the information in the documents. The National Archives policy is that researchers are not to reorganize the file contents.]


What I’ve learned from a Desert Land Claim file is that the usual “yearly proof” reports must be sent in by witnesses and the applicant, same as with federal homestead files I’ve studied. Then a final declaration of the applicant precedes the transfer of land. Pay close attention to the yearly witnesses sworn statements. I’ve seen sons-in-law swearing out such reports distinguishing the applicant from another in the area by a similar name but no relation. 

 It was also apparently necessary to advertise in the local newspaper and provide proof of that publication as part of the final papers for processing of the desert land claim. Some of the other files I searched had to have a signature from the local railroad if there was an easement to take into consideration.


During NARA’s review of your ancestor’s file, they found several items marked “classified” and called for authority to permit me to digitize the pages. I mentioned the documents were for a federal land act of 1877 finalized in 1922. They made a few phone calls, and after about 15 minutes, they asked that I include a small slip of paper with “DECLASSIFIED ” and the date, initials and authority with each image marked classified. When I went through the file one category of declassified documents was a blueprint map of the land indicating waterways. So, keep an eye out for that tiny slip of paper on top of the images.  

Russell L. Ingle entry, Desert Land Claim 877756, US Land Office, Le Grande Oregon District. National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC. Record Group 49. Loose Papers. [Detail of declassification status on a blueprint map.] 


My contract was to provide digital images of every page from the file and trust my client will download these pics within the next week or so, that I may clear my Dropbox space for the next project. The work I spent digitizing each ancestor’s file took about 90 minutes including the ordering of the file, camera copy stand work and 1/9th of my travel time. (I found work on eight other files.)

The Archives staff strongly encourages researchers interested in their records to contact them prior to visiting. Their staff can help determine if you need to visit them to access records or if there is an alternative option for you to obtain copies. Contact: Archives 1 Reference staff at archives1reference@nara.gov. Center for Legislative Archives at legislative.archives@nara.gov.

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  1. I guess it's been longer than I realized since I've been to any NARA location. Camera copy stands? Wow! Do they not have photocopiers anymore? If you have a portable scanner and laptop, will they let you bring those in?

  2. A very nice description of researching at NARA. I'm going to put a link to this post on my story from last week. I discussed this a bit on air with Thomas on BlogTalk radio. I wish I had read your post BEFORE going to Washington DC because it really does pay to be prepared before entering the building!

  3. @Robin – Yes, you can bring a camera tripod, a laptop and a flatbed scanner into NARA. They are checked at the foyer before you are granted permission to enter.

    I couldn't believe seeing a man with a legal-sized flat bed scanner hooked up to his laptop. That seems like a lot to carry. He just "locked" the scanner mechanism, and placed it vertically in a regular carrying bag with handles. You could see about 1/4 of the scanner sticking up out of that bag.

    They DO have photocopy machines. However, as soon as the supply of white paper is exhausted, NARA is switching to blue legal-sized paper, to make it easier to spot papers from files that might be stolen. I don't want to deal with blue photocopies, so I am perfecting my work with a digital camera.

    NARA I's room #203 also has a book scanner for copying.

    I've heard at the NARA I & II Users Group Meetings last fall the copy machine contracts expire in May 2011, and that NARA was putting out bids for photocopiers that also had scan to flash drive capabilities.

    I really like colored scans as you gain a better understanding of the age of these documents over a typical black and white photocopy.

    Glad this blog post has generated such interest.

  4. From Karabeths:

    I'm glad to hear that NARA has streamlined the payment for copies. Our local library changed to this procedure years ago and I was happy when they did. One less thing to lose!

    I took pictures of my ancestors' files, too, while at NARA but this was done out of necessity. (Ran out of cash for copies.) I now see from your tips the benefits of doing this exclusively.

    I also want to learn more about land records. I know very little about them and yet they have the potential to solve many puzzles.

    Thanks for the great article. I can't wait to go back to NARA!

  5. It's quite original for you to post in detail about the steps you took on your day at NARA. I'll never get there so it's wonderful to read the process. You're so good, Myrt! Thank you.

  6. Thanks for such an informative writing about NARA. It will really help me prepare for my first trip there next year (hopefully!). Keep up the great work!!

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