Wednesday, May 6, 2009

How to Use NARA for Genealogy Research

NARA is the acronym for The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Basically, NARA is the records administration and preservation arm of the federal government. Whether you know it or not, you have probably accessed a record from the NARA holdings at one point or another in your research.

The NARA records that are most valuable to genealogists in our research are census records, military records, immigration records, naturalization records, and land records. NARA does have a website, but most of its records are not available online. The NARA website can be found here. The website will be useful in that it does have indexes of their microfilm holdings, as well as information on how to conduct searches in the different types of records.

In order to access and utilize NARA holdings, you have a few choices:

  1. Visit one of the National Archive locations in person and conduct the research yourself. You can find the locations of the regional NARA facilities on their website. This is a great option if you live close to a location and have several hours to put in the time doing your archival search.

  2. Rent or purchase copies from NARA of the microfilm you need and use the film at a local library or local LDS Family History Center. While this may be a little more convenient, particularly if you don't live close to a NARA facility, this method could end up being pretty expensive.

  3. Hire an independent researcher to conduct your archival research for you. This option would eliminate the need for you to spend much of your own time at all in order to get the information you need, but again, the cost might be prohibitive.

  4. You can order online for certain genealogical records. Information on what records can be ordered online is on the NARA website, but not all of their holdings are available this way.

  5. You can access many, if not most, NARA holdings from a local genealogical society or large public library, state archives, or an LDS Family History Center.

  6. If you want the best combination of low cost and low time investment, there is a final option. Ancestry.com has digitized NARA holdings in their online collections available to their members. They are also currently adding more new NARA holdings. Many of the NARA records are also being included on the new LDS Family Search pilot search project for free. There are many records available on this beta site now, but it is far from complete. This is an ongoing project, which will take several years to complete.


Whatever method you use to utilize the records available from NARA, you will find quickly (if you haven't already) that these types of federal records will be among your most important records in your genealogical research. Take the time to familiarize yourself with the records available at NARA. It will be well worth the time investment.

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