Ways to Learn What's at the National Archives

How to learn what's at the National Archives for genealogy and family history, both on the NARA website and personal blogs.

Ways to Learn What's at the National Archives
Photo by Guzmán Barquín / Unsplash

I’m attending GenFed this week and want to share resources to help my fellow genealogists learn what’s at the National Archives, or NARA.

GenFed is short for the Genealogical Institute on Federal Records. It is a week long, all-day program usually held at the National Archives in Washington D.C. For 2021 Gen-Fed is virtual and I’m missing being onsite. But it is including presentations from many NARA branches around the U.S. which is a bonus.

What is NARA?

NARA is the acronym for the National Archives and Records Administration of the federal government. It is the archive for all branches, departments, and agencies of the federal government. NARA encompasses thirteen regional national archives, two D.C. area national archives, the National Personnel Records Center for military records, and many presidential libraries. Their holdings encompass 11.5 billion textual pages (plus photos and movies), with 1% digitized and available for online search. So genealogists are only just scrapping the very surface of NARA records when using Ancestry, Fold3, or FamilySearch.

Free Resources

So how does one learn more about the other 11.4 billion federal records not digitized? Here’s a list of resources recommend to us at GenFed to learn about what’s at NARA:

  • NARA Catalog Guide for Genealogists – A guide written by NARA just for family history researchers. Hosted on the NARA website archive.gov
  • NARA Genealogy Fair Presentations – Several years of presentations (with handouts!) on topics from Freedmen’s Bureau records, immigration and naturalization, military records of various eras, and more. Hosted on YouTube.
  • The Twelve Key Website – Written by NARA archivist Claire Kluskens, the blog posts and resource guides here make you feel like you learning inside tips. Excellent website.
  • Guide to Genealogical Research in the National Archives – A book last printed in 2001, this book covers how immigration, naturalization, military, bounty land, and court records are cataloged and what each holds. Essential to knowing what’s available each year of our ancestors’ lives.
  • Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives in the United States book – last printed in 1995 and now available on NARA’s website. This is updated regularly and completely searchable. It will also link you to related records across collections.

If you’ve read all these resources, then GenFed could be for you. Check out the details for enrollment and be sure to sign up for the email list. It’s not free, but the value is way more than the price it goes for.

Many of our ancestors interacted with the federal government at some point in their life. Learning about how to access NARA records beyond what we find online can extend and enhance our family history.

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