Know Before You Go

Know Before You Go:

What You Should Know Before You Head to the National Archives

Many of us couldn't do our research without the hard work of our colleagues at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), and a lot of us plan to combine our trip D.C. SHAFR conference with a quick (or extended) trip to Archives II. But this can cause a bit of a traffic jam and the archives. You can make the lives of the NARA staff whom we rely on a bit easier if you prepare ahead of time and realize that resources and staff time will be especially spread thin for the duration of the SHAFR Conference. We've put together a little guide -- with some assistance from our friends at NARA -- to help you in preparing your trip.

Please read this now so you can be prepared for June (or whenever you visit the archives), and point it out to those you know who are headed to the archive.

The more we know before we go,
the better the experience will be for everyone!


For those SHAFRites planning to visit the National Archives during the upcoming conference, please keep the following in mind (this guidance will help at other times, too):

1. Many conference attendees will be doing this.

2. The research room(s) will be busy and will probably be near or at full seating capacity.

3. Even though NARA expects an increased number of on-site researchers at the time of the conference, NARA staff will make every attempt to assist individual researchers with their research requests. But please understand that NARA staff may have to expedite researcher consultations to ensure that all researchers are assisted.  To further assist researchers, the specialist on foreign affairs records will hold a consultation hour in the main Research Room every morning from 9-10 am on June 20-22 (ordinarily, this takes place only on Tuesday mornings).

4. Because of the increased volume during the SHAFR Conference, unless you know exactly which records you want to see and the information needed to request them (record group number, entry number, box number/central files number--information that is in the National Archives Catalog or can be found in FRUS and secondary sources), please contact reference staff before arrival at the National Archives. Note that having only a Department of State "Lot" number is not sufficient to identify records.

Making contact ahead of time is especially necessary if you are interested in:

  • more recent records (1960s and later);
  • records of agencies that deal with more sensitive government functions (such as State, Justice, Defense, the FBI, and the intelligence agencies);
  • records for which you have incomplete or partial identification (agency-assigned numbers, such as Department of State "Lot File" numbers, that do not carry over into use by the National Archives); and
  • records that have only recently been transferred to the National Archives.

5. You should plan on making contact AT LEAST 4 WEEKS BEFORE the conference (NARA's turn-around time on reference inquiries can take up to three weeks, and you want to allow a little leeway); even sooner if you plan to have an exchange with the National Archives.  That means that Memorial Day is effectively the last deadline for pre-visit communications before the SHAFR Conference!

An effective inquiry consists of a succinct description of your research interest. Draw your inquiry narrowly. Requests for "everything you have" on a given topic will not lead to a useful response. Requests that are limited to one agency or a group of closely related agencies help the reference staff prepare informative responses. This approach may lead to multiple inquiries, but you will receive more complete information. You should send the same reference inquiry to only one address to avoid confusion and duplication of work.