Thursday, January 22, 2009

Visiting NARA: Making Reproductions

I recently made my first visit to the National Archives and Record Administration (NARA). This is one in a series of articles inspired by that visit to help you make your first visit to the National Archives. The information in today's article is a mixture of personal knowledge gathered from that trip and information from General Information Leaflet (GIL) 71, The National Archives in the Nation's Capital – Information for Researchers.

Making reproductions

Copystand image courtesy B and H Photo - Video - Pro Audio Archives I permits self-service copying, although you need to ask the staff's permission each time, so they can verify that the records you wish to copy can be safely copied. In general, a document should not be allowed to hang over the edge of any copy machine, scanner, table or desk. Hand-held scanners are prohibited because they can damage documents. You can bring your own scanner, but see the restrictions, below.

The National Archives and Records Administration is one of the few archival institutions in the world to offer researchers the opportunity to make self-service copies of records. This rare privilege carries with it responsibilities for careful handling of original documents. Fragile or oversized records may not be self-photocopied, although NARA or an authorized vendor may be able to make the copy for you.


Self-service black-and-white photocopiers are available for your use in the textual research room. Self-service reader/printers are available in the microfilm research room. Staff told me that they hope to add a color copier. A debit card reader attached to each copier deducts money as a copy is made. Debit cards may be purchased onsite through vending machines or at the Cashier’s Office. The vending machines take bills only. The Cashier’s Office is open from 8:45 am to 4:30 pm in the National Archives Building in Washington, DC (10 am to 4:30 pm in Archives II at College Park), Monday through Friday.

I understand the photocopiers add an imprint indicating the document is a copy so that when you are checked prior to exiting the building, the documents won't be mistaken for originals. I didn't use the photocopiers, so I didn't see exactly how this worked. It looked like there was always a short line to use the copiers when I was there off season during extended hours.


You may use your own scanner with the following restrictions: the copying surface (platen) must be the same size or larger than the record; the scanner must not cause friction, abrasion, or otherwise damage records; light sources must not generate heat on the records; and equipment surfaces must be clean and dry before being used. Drum and automatic feed scanners are prohibited.

Personal paper-to-paper copiers are permitted only under certain restricted conditions and are subject to highly specific guidelines. If you intend to bring a scanner or copier, you must make prior arrangements with the Customer Service Center.

Because of preservation considerations, research room staff must examine all original records before you make copies using your own equipment.

Digital Camera

Fortunately, you may use a digital camera. Unfortunately, I have a shaky hand which produces blurry photographs (familial tremors). Fortunately, a bright light will avoid blurring. Unfortunately, you may not use a flash or your own artificial lighting. Fortunately, the textual reading room has a copy stand (see image of a copy stand, above). Unfortunately, the evening I was there one of the two light bulbs was burnt out. Fortunately, the working bulb produced enough light and the camera mount held the camera steady. Unfortunately, one bulb isn't appropriate for archival purposes. Fortunately, having only one light source produced aesthetically beautiful shadows and depth that, for me, was more valuable.

Using a light table produces steady, clear photographs. Using just one light source sometimes increases the aesthetics.
Using a light table produces steady, clear photographs. 
Using just one light source sometimes increases the aesthetics.

Of all the copy options, I prefer the digital camera with a copy stand. I didn't have to wait for photocopy machines. I didn't have to get a debit card or pay anything. I didn't have copies to be reviewed when exiting the building. It felt like I could make copies a little faster than a photocopy machine. Plus, the copies are color! I love capturing the full rainbow of ink and paper colors. I love the dynamic range of light and shadow!

Coming home with these fabulous images is part of what made the trip to Washington so fulfilling for me.


  1. Insider,

    The couple times I have been to Archives I in DC I have never copied original documents. But their policies seem very generous in offering a wide variety of options and the ability to make copies oneself.

    This contrasts with other archives and repositories which won't let you make photocopies yourself, and also won't let you bring in a digital camera, flash or no flash.

    All of which brings to mind, along with the records access situation that varies among the states, that the NGS and APG and other genealogical organizations should push for best practices and model policies to be adopted in the states and at local levels with the goal of consistency. Local officials in hundreds of different repositories with varying/contradictory policies really don't all know best even if they think they do :).


  2. Fortunately was one of my favorite books as a kid!

  3. I was at the Library of Congress recently, and they do let you use a digital camera (no flash) for certain materials.

  4. Mike,

    Great comment, as always. There's certainly a need for genealogical organizations' participation.

    The AI

  5. Diane,

    Unfortunately, kids grow up. Fortunately, the joys of our childhood never leave us.

    Thanks for you comment.

    -The AI

  6. Greta,

    That's great information. Thanks for sharing.

    --The AI


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