National Archives at College Park, Maryland


A review of The National Archives at College Park, Maryland, United States of America.

I have been to the US National Archives many times over the last five years; it is a place of wonder, excitement, and sometimes deep frustration. My research there has spanned a wide range of topics, including the history of laboratories, patent drawings, international development assistance, and military technology. My longest research trips were for my dissertation, which was a history of the mapping sciences in the twentieth century. In tracing the transition between paper mapping and electronic systems like GPS, I ended up looking at records from several agencies — including the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey, the War Department, the State Department, the Army (including the Army Corps of Engineers), and the Federal Aviation Agency — along with many records from World War I and World War II. My main interest was to connect practical changes in mapping technology to larger conceptual questions: what it means to map, what a map is for, and how maps structure territory.

The National Archives are a very strange place indeed, and can provide direct experience of adjectives like “Kafkaesque” and “Foucauldean.” You should come fully prepared for complex bureaucracy and labyrinthine rules; you may also encounter security procedures including metal detectors guarded and patrolled by armed personnel — more on this later. Rather than give a litany of the challenges that may lie in wait, I will instead try to offer something more like a survival guide. My advice can be divided into two categories: finding useful records and managing your time.

Finding Records. Because the National Archives are so vast, I will not attempt to describe any particular group of records. I can, however, offer three pieces of general advice.

(1) Keep in mind that there are two “National Archives” in the DC area: one is downtown, and the other is about ten miles away in College Park, Maryland. These locations are known as “NARA I” and “NARA II,” respectively — NARA being the National Archives and Records Administration. NARA II or “Archives II”  is much larger and will be the home base for most projects, but you might need to go downtown as well. The important point here is that the two locations do not necessarily communicate with each other. There are some very basic descriptions of each location’s holdings on the NARA website, but the archivists at NARA II essentially have no knowledge of what is deposited at NARA I, and vice versa. (The same goes for the various sub-parts of NARA II: if you do not find anything in the “textual records” department, you might still have luck in “cartographic records,” “microfilm,” and so on.)

(2) I have found three ways of locating records; none is perfect.

The first method is to contact an archivist before visiting. If you ask specific questions and mention specific projects or individuals, you may get a response with some very helpful reconnaissance (although often after some delay, perhaps via snail mail).

The second method is to use the Archival Research Catalog (ARC), which is easy to use but is by no means complete. (As of Fall 2012, it was 75% complete “at the series level,” where a “series” can be a very large collection like “World War II Combat Operations Reports, compiled 1941–1946,” which contains 6034 boxes. Even when all series have been cataloged, there will still be huge numbers of “entries,” boxes, and folders that remain invisible.)

The third method is to consult paper finding aids. Each NARA department — textual, cartographic, etc. — has its own set of finding aids. In the textual records department, there is a special finding-aids room, divided into two halves: one for civilian records and one for military records. NARA’s paper finding aids can vary greatly in quality. In my experience, they seem to range from being somewhat useful to being hardly recognizable as finding aids at all. For example, for some record groups the finding aid is actually just a huge (and almost completely useless) binder of accession paperwork organized chronologically by the date that the records arrived at College Park. Some of the more reasonable finding aids have been published and may be available in libraries or online; they have titles like Inventory of the Records of the Hydrographic Office or Preliminary Inventory of the Records of the Coast and Geodetic Survey. Be warned, however, that significant translation may be necessary to turn a finding-aid entry number into an actual box at your table (see point 3 below).

Also note that numbers from the “Guide to Federal Records” online (such as 23.3.5) will probably not be helpful at all. I still do not know what these numbers mean.

(3) The process of finding records is entirely separate from the process of actually requesting them. The best thing to do is to ask an archivist in the finding-aids room how to fill out a “pull slip” for the records that interest you. It will not be intuitive, and you should not attempt this without guidance. If you make even a small error (either in transcription or procedure), your request will be returned unfilled and you will have to start all over again. As just one example, you may find a something online with an Archival Research Catalog (ARC) identifier of 2918412; the ARC description will give you a “Master Location Register” (MLR) number of NM6 7A, and you will also want to note the “container” (i.e., box) number of 5693. None of these numbers, however, will actually end up on your request slip. Instead, you will need to consult a set of binders that can translate an MLR number into a shelf location. And since making photocopies or photos from these binders is strictly prohibited, there is no way to do this translation ahead of time.

Managing Your Time. NARA has extremely strict rules about time. The biggest headache is that you are only allowed to request records at four or five specific times each day, known as “pull times.” After you successfully fill out your pull slips, they are deposited into a bin that is emptied only at the next pull time. Then you will probably have to wait about an hour before your records finally arrive in the reading room. (Note that you will not receive any notice when your records arrive; you will have to check a ledger periodically at the pull desk to see if your records are claimable.)

To illustrate the challenge that this system poses, imagine that you arrive for your first visit on a Monday at 9:00am sharp. You may only get to the reading room around 9:45, since registration will take some time. You consult your finding aids and ask an archivist to help fill out some pull slips, and you have a stack of slips ready at 11:15. But since the next pull time is not until 1:30pm, you will not actually see any records until 2:30. If you are unlucky and end up getting the wrong records, by this point there are no more pull times and you will have to try again tomorrow. Kazaam — you just spent six hours at the archive and saw nothing of interest. You feel the darkness drawing nearer, and you weep.

The only useful strategy is to stagger your pulls so that you are submitting your next request before you have finished your current task. (You will probably have to do this anyway, since you will not be allowed to request material from more than one shelf location at a time.) There are limits to how much you can have waiting for you in the back room, but to be productive you will need to master the art of staggered requests. This is especially important when you are just getting started and have yet to find a rich set of material that might occupy you for several days. Keep in mind that you can leave boxes on hold overnight; this is also the only way to do work on Saturday, when there are no pull times at all.

Besides these basic survival tips, I can only offer moral support and a somewhat breathless list of other issues to watch out for. Getting to and from the archives without a car is tedious at best — you will need to transfer from the Metro to bus R3 or C8, and you may have to wait a while. There are no restaurants anywhere nearby, and the best thing I can say about the cafeteria is that I have had worse. You will have to register your computer and digital camera before entering, and you will have to recite the serial numbers when leaving. You may need to remove your laptop battery so that they can inspect the inside. You will have to get your digital camera “approved” before taking any photos, and you will need to fill out an additional form before taking photos of any declassified documents. Photocopies can only be made on legal-size paper; they are expensive and you can only use a NARA copycard to pay for them. There are rules regulating what you must and must not bring with you to the copier, and there are staff standing by to enforce these rules. There is no wireless internet, and cell-phone reception can be spotty. If you put your feet up or lift a document off the table to read it, you may be reprimanded. The reading room is severely over-air-conditioned, so bring a sweater. But watch out — sweaters with zippers are specifically prohibited.

That said, if you can manage to navigate your way around these challenges, the National Archives do offer a wealth of material. It is quite remarkable to have so many important documents under one roof, and many of the archivists do truly want to help you — some of them seem to find NARA’s rules just as baffling as I do. NARA’s records have been the backbone for many of my research projects, and I am sure I will continue to return to College Park, hat in hand, for the rest of my career.

Bill Rankin
Assistant Professor
Program in the History of Science and Medicine
Yale University


Image: National Archives at College Park (a.k.a. “Archives II”), located in College Park, Maryland, United States of America. It opened in 1994 to mainly preserve photographs and graphic images. It is adjacent to the University of Maryland College Park campus. Wikimedia Commons.

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  1. Yep, that about covers it. I have a freakout question though – NO WIRELESS INTERNET? – Is that a recent change? Just last year you could access the net there through a signup process. That was the only way I could use the ARC database.

    Also, if you can muster it financially, I’ve found that working as a two-person team can be a tremendous help with negotiating those pull times.

  2. Bill —

    This is an excellent write-up. The fact that you cannot really ascertain what the holdings are without looking at the paper finding aids (for what they are worth) is a point I find myself constantly trying to communicate to unbelieving friends and colleagues who are planning trips to Archives II.

    (For Record Groups that I use extensively, I have taken to just photographing the whole finding aids and MLRs. They don’t change that quickly or that often, and being able to do that sort of search-work before going all the way into the archive is a boon, even for a local like me.)

    To elaborate one of Bill’s points: your pulls must come from the same Record Group, on top of everything else, if I recall correctly. This has been a huge pain for me in the past (the history of the atomic bomb is contained in Record Groups 326 and 77, among others, but you can’t pick and choose in a single pull). There are also “hand-carry” pulls that give you slightly more flexibility than ordering up an entire cart, but now we are getting very deep in the labyrinth.

    I might also emphasize though that some of these policies change in subtle ways over time, so any attempt to write them up is subject to some local alteration of practice.

    Case in point: they actually do have wireless Internet now. As far as I can tell, they added this in 2011 or so. It’s a little temperamental, in my experience, but it’s there.

    They also, in the last year or two, have adopted new policies for paper-based notes. When leaving the manuscript reading room, they now not only check that the notes you are leaving with are your own (and not, say, a swiped copy of the Emancipation Proclamation), but they lock them into a zippered, canvas envelope. This envelope can then be unlocked by the armed guard on the floor below. So basically your notes have to ride in a special little bag down the elevator. Who knew one’s notes were so valuable?

    Thanks again for the write-up — I anticipate referring others to this many times in the future!

  3. Hello everyone, especially Prof. Rankin –
    My name is Bill Mayer, and i am the Executive for Research Services for the National Archives. I am the person responsible for research services at all 15 archival facilities across the nation, including Archives 1 and 2 in Washington DC. I am grateful to Prof. Rankin for his deep description of his experience at Archives 2. I completely agree, it is a complicated process to get access to the records of the republic. In some cases, it has to be if we are to ensure access for the researchers of tomorrow. We have billions of pages under our care, and our staff work hard every day to bring new levels of access to the content of those records. Doing our best is everyone’s goal.

    The timing of Prof. Rankin’s post, and the comments that follow, are right in line with a new discussion underway in Research Services at the Archives, and I want to encourage more commentary – especially directly to me – to broaden our efforts transforming customer services. My staff and I are seeking new ways to manage access to the original records that is customer focused, while at the same time enabling the staff to accomplish their mission of enhancing the American experience by preserving and protecting these permanent records. So let me know of your stories, the good and the bad. You can have a part in evolving research services at the National Archives.

    Bill Mayer
    Executive, Research Services

  4. Bill,

    Thank you for this — it’s incredibly valuable, and I echo just about everything you’ve said. I’ve also taken Alex’s advice of photographing entire finding aids, and it’s proven a remarkable time saver. Three additional observations, based on my most recent visit in December:

    1. Wireless internet has been added (as others have noted) and was noticeably better in 2012 than it was in 2011, though this evidence is purely impressionistic. Cell phone reception is still spotty.
    2. They no longer make you carry a piece of paper for your laptop or recite the serial number. To anyone who hasn’t been there, this seems like a trivial update, but I’ve found it made things a bit easier.
    3. Archives II is by far the largest of them, but I also want to point out to readers that there are many, many branches that also have material. Make sure the material you’re looking for isn’t somewhere else in the system. ARC can help with that.

    Once again, we are in your debt!

  5. Bill, and other dear readers,
    Greetings from Hungary. I will put together a short review of various archives in Hungary, but as a prelude I would like to make a few points here and recall you my visit to the National Archives in College Park.
    Bill, I assume you never been to a Hungarian archive. As a rule of thumb you can order four boxes or 40 individual documents a day and it takes about 3 days to get those. Nowadays you can send your order via email but as most of the finding aids have yet to be made available online, it won’t help much.
    My primary field of research is the history of Hungarian motoring, but I am also interested in the “fringe”, like the history of Chinese motoring, coachbuilding etc. Back in 2001 I spent a few weeks at the Henry Ford in Dearborn, Detroit. I found a lot of materials related to the activities of Ford in Hungary, but I also found some very interesting general sales statistics related to the new car, truck and motorcycle market in Hungary in the late 1930s. Afterwards some kind American friends visited the NARA II in College Park and reported that they also found similar statistics from 1924-1925. As most of the documents related to pre-war motoring activities in Hungary were destroyed during the 2nd World War and afterwards so I was really, really excited. I tried to contact the National Arcives and talked to the archivist, who kindly made some photocopies. But something was off.
    So in May, 2011 I appeared at the gates of the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. I was prepared (or so I thought) and determined. Yes, it is true that it is a bit difficult to get into the archives. But that’s understandable, given the size of the archive.
    Upon entering the reading room, I was shocked to see people with scanners. If you visit an archive in Hungary, you need permission to bring your digital camera! But scanners? Out of the question. Second shock came with pull times. You can order up to 15 boxes (if my memory serves me right) and there are five pull times a day. I am in heaven! But my joyous mood was quickly cooled by the archivist, who was a bit shocked to see me. He said that he photographed everything, which was available. I spent the whole day trying to find the elusive materials without luck. On the way to the hotel I bought a scanner and spent the evening thinking about relevant questions.
    And then I found the jackpot. I was looking at materials about the Department of Commerce. So next morning I asked the archivist: how about materials published by the Department of Commerce? And with that, open sesame , the treasure trove was opened.
    You see, the NARA is the biggest depository library of U.S. Government Publications. And before the 2nd WW the Department of Commerce collected materials from over 90 countries, related to all forms of trade and industry. Movie industry in South Africa? Shoe industry in Honduras? Farming in Italy? Automobile trade statistics from China? No problem, you can find these and a lot more.
    There was just one trick left: the Government Publications have their own cataloging system. Luckily I graduated as a librarian, and frankly, the system is not that difficult. But it is only available in print.
    But let me tell you that in the course of four days, I waded through about 150 boxes of materials and found everything I wanted – and more.
    You see, these great folks at the Dept. of Commerce, bless their souls, also collected photographic material. There are hundreds and hundreds boxes of photos on the 5th floor. My primary interest was cars and the pre-1945 era, but there are materials from the 1950s, 1960s as well. And you can bring your scanner and scan most of the photos without any hassle. Sure, there are photos with restricted rights, as the NARA holds the archives of some magazines, though the titles I can’t recall.
    This is just a short summary of my visit, but I hope I was able to shed some additional light on NARA

    Pal Negyesi
    PhD Distance Learning Student
    School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester
    pn60 at

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