I recently made my first visit to the National Archives and Record Administration (NARA) in Washington, D.C. This is one in a series of articles inspired by that visit to help you make your first visit to the National Archives.
Understanding the National Archives Website
Archives.gov, the website of the National Archives and Record Administration (NARA), has a colossal amount of information. For the latest information and to answer questions not addressed in this series, consult the website. Unfortunately, sometimes it feels like a maze of twisty little passages that sometimes look all alike and sometimes all different. For example, search for "hours" and compare some of the results, such as the suggested link, "...Changes in Hours," "Extended Research Hours," "...Extended Research Room Hours," "...Changes in Hours," "Proposed Hours," etc.
Each page of archives.gov has so many links that it is easy to spend half your time doubling-back on yourself. The home page is one of the worst, with nearly 150 links from which to choose; the main genealogists' page, more than 110. Unfortunately, making the website easy to navigate is NARA's 4th and lowest web priority. That's not to say they've taken no thought to do so, as we shall see they've provided us plenty of tools.
The magic to spelunking archives.gov is understanding its organization. Archives.gov is divided into sections for different users. Near the upper-right corner of the home page is a green box (shown to the right) that lists the sections of the website. The two of most interest to us are Genealogists/Family Historians and Researchers. The first highlights NARA records of interest to genealogists. The latter gives information about doing onsite research at the National Archives. I encourage you to spend some time exploring these two sections.
Often, links from one section jump to another. This can lead to disorientation, looping and dead ends if you don't orientate yourself after each link by looking at the picture in the header or checking the bread crumbs.
As shown in the diagram, below, the bread crumbs are located immediately below the header. Unlike dropping tasty food crumbs in some cave adventure, the bread crumbs don't show the path you used to arrive at the page. Rather, they show how the page fits in the logical organization of the website. Remember looking at the results of searching for "hours"? Perform the search again; click the links once more; this time look at the header and bread crumbs. Notice that conflicting hours of operation are merely faithfully archived copies of old press releases. Also, did you notice that as soon as you click in the Search box (at the top of the page) you are given the choice of searching the entire website or just the current section? Limiting your search to one section is one way to avoid potentially outdated or extraneous results.
Understanding the page layout used on archives.gov will help you avoid "link overload." To return to the home page, click on the blue box at the top-left or the home icon underneath it. To return to the main page of a section, click on the name of the section in the header or the bread crumbs. The footer links and the other header links don't change, so I mentally eliminate them from the clutter. This just leaves the left sidebar and the page contents.
There are three icons across the top of the page contents. The first icon formats the page for printing by leaving off the header, footer and sidebars. The second icon allows you to email a link to the page and the last icon bookmarks the page, which adds it to your browser's list of Favorites or Bookmarks.
The left sidebar is a helpful list of links that apply to that particular page. (A few pages also have a right sidebar with links.) I've seen these links lead to pretty much anywhere: up the bread crumb trail, down the bread crumb trail, over to a different section or elsewhere on the same page. To prevent looping back on yourself, if you find a page of interest, read the page contents before following any links. Next, follow any links of interest in the page contents. Only then should you use the sidebar to look for additional pages of interest.
Make liberal use of your browser's Back button. Consider opening links in new windows (or tabs, if your browser supports tabbed browsing). And remember to keep an eye on the header and bread crumbs.
- As mentioned previously, the main pages for the Genealogists/Family Historians and Researchers sections are good starting places when preparing to visit the National Archives.
- Beginning Your Genealogical Research at the National Archives and Records Administration in the Genealogists section is a 158 slide presentation in PowerPoint format. It outlines the different types of records available at the National Archives. The most powerful advice given is, "Think of possible ways your ancestor interacted with the Federal government."
- The National Archives in Washington, DC
- Information for Researchers at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC
- When I visited the National Archives, the computers available for patron use had a special home page. You can familiarize yourself with this part of the National Archives website before you go, even clicking on links to premium web sites like Ancestry.com. But you won't be able to access the premium web sites for free until you are at the Archives.
Like many web sites today, the commerce section of the National Archives website has a different look and feel than the rest of the website. You won't generally touch this part of the website unless you purchase something or consult the Microfilm Catalog. Explaining the use of this section of the website is beyond the scope of this series. A pamphlet describing the contents of each microfilm publication is available for download from this section. Unfortunately, I don't think there are reusable URLs to these downloads. A few have been duplicated on the regular website and have addresses such as www.archives.gov/research/microfilm/m1947.pdf, which is the address for the descriptive pamphlet for microfilm publication M1947.
Lastly, here's a link that you're not likely to need unless you author a blog or website. To create a reusable link to an entry in ARC, the Archives Research Catalog, use this format: http://arcweb.archives.gov/arc/action/ExternalIdSearch?id=654530. Replace 654530 with the ARC identifier.
Try navigating to find the link to download a pdf of NATF forms 85/86 and see whether the path there is intuitive or not, and whether you could have instead followed military records links fruitlessly without finding those links.
It is however nice that one can order online now with their sending you the goods with a bill instead of requiring payment first as do most archives which lengthens the time to receive a packet.
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