Visiting the archives

Recently I had the good fortune to visit the National Archives and Library of Congress in Washington DC. Both the National Archives and Library Congress house significant collections of archival materials. For anyone interested in examining historical records pertaining to a topic of interest, a visit to these collections is highly recommended.

Where are the National Archives in the US?

The National Archives in Washington DC is located on Pennsylvania Avenue a short walk from The U.S. Capitol. There is also another facility a 45-minute shuttle ride away in College Park, Maryland. Other federal records centers are listed on the National Archives website along with Presidential libraries, which are overseen by the National Archives.


What records are included in the National Archives?

The National Archives preserve records from Federal government agencies and Congress, and make these available for research. According to a National Archives overview, only 1-3% of all records generated are retained. The National Archives does not include records from individuals, private businesses, or state or local governments.

How does one access the archives?

To explore a collection, one must first obtain a researcher card after undertaking a short online orientation. Examination of the online findings aids is recommended prior to visiting the collections, as The National Archives also has facilities across the country. It would not be helpful to find oneself in Washington DC only to find that the collection one wants to examine is in Fort Worth!

My own search was for documents connected to the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), which was developed as part of the Works Progress Administration (later renamed the Works Projects Administration) initiative in the 1930s. I have reviewed some records in the Special Collections of my local university library; and have also reviewed some of the records that have been made available online via the Library of Congress. What I was able to do during this visit was to examine original administrative records housed in the National Archives, in addition to records that were transferred to the Library of Congress after the FWP project came to an end.

Researchers are able to consult with archivists who can provide guidance as to navigating the finding aids and locating relevant resources. Once a specific collection has been located, an order is placed, and the records are provided for the researcher’s review. If the records are stored off-site, it may be a day or two before they will be available for review. This is another reason why it is wise to plan ahead. Useful tips for planning a research visit are found on the National Archives website.

Handling the archives

In the archives I’ve visited, precautions are taken that no records are disordered or damaged through handling. This means that what researchers take into the reading rooms is carefully monitored on entry and exit and researcher cards are scanned. For example, researchers may take laptops, cell phones and tablets, but are not permitted to take personal belongings such as notebooks or bags. Further, each archival collection has specific rules as to how documents are examined (e.g., one might only take out one folder at a time). Permission might also need to be gained to take photos of any materials. Certain collections may have specific requirements as to gaining permission to use materials for publication purposes. Here are more detailed tips for what is required of anyone reviewing archival records in the National Archives.

In my review of records, I found that more and more questions arose. Sometimes a record might answer a question I had, but it would also provoke new questions, as well as lead me to sources stored at other locations. For example, some FWP records are found in the Library of Congress.

Following leads

My search led me to the Library of Congress, which is housed in the Thomas Jefferson Building, the James Madison Memorial Building and the John Adams Buildings, all of which are connected via tunnels. The Library of Congress is the largest library in the world, and in addition to books, preserves photographs, maps, music, sound, film, manuscripts and other media. I highly recommend taking the time to visit the Great Hall and temporary and permanent exhibits in the Thomas Jefferson Building if you visit. Since there are so many collections, it is worthwhile checking the hours for the reading room that you would like to visit. The Library of Congress provides lots of information for researchers to review prior to visiting. One might also access many materials via the digital collections.


Research using the archives has a sense of mystery… since one never knows what one will find, or where one will end up. If you are interested in thinking about how documents and archival collections might be used in your research, a first place to begin would be to examine collections available to you locally. These might be found in your local library or a regional facility, such as a state archive.

All the best with your research!

Kathy Roulston 


“General overview of NARA Holdings at Archives 1 and Archives 2”: National Archives.

Websites of the National Archives and Library of Congress.


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