|The U.S. National Archives|
The Archives has many different types of records available to researchers. The records most relevant to genealogy research include census records, military service records, immigration records, naturalization records, passport applications, and land records, but there are many other types of records available. In order to get access to records in the Archives, you must obtain a researcher's card.
|My National Archives Research Card|
The card is free, and all you need to do to get one is watch a presentation on records available and rules for using and handling them. There is a bit of security involved to get into the Archives -- metal detector, etc., and you can't bring notebooks or backpacks into the research area. You can bring laptops, cameras, and loose notes with you. There are computers available in the research areas, so you probably don't need to bring your own.
I've been to the Archives several times, and on this trip I was concentrating on military records. Records for pre-World War I military service are kept at the Archives; all military records for later service are kept at the National Military Personnel Records Center in St. Louis. There are two primary types of military records at the Archives - Compiled Service Records, and Pension Application and Pension Payment Records. I have used both types of records and both have useful information, but in general I have found more genealogically relevant information in the pension records. I plan on a more extensive post on using Civil War records with examples from my 2nd great grandfather's records at a later date.
You can order records online, but that can get pretty expensive; for example, a Civil War pension file costs $80. Of course that is cheap compared to a plane ticket to Washington, D.C., but if you are going to be in the area anyway like I was, a trip there can save you some money.
On this trip I took advantage of a fairly new program at the Archives. They have a section called the Innovation Hub that has computers and scanners available that you can use for free to scan records.
|Work Area at the Innovation Hub at the National Archives|
Normally when you request records they are brought to an area where you can examine them and either take photos or make paper copies for 25 cents per page (which can also get pretty expensive). If you have your records brought to the Innovation Hub instead, you get to use their equipment for free; your part of the bargain is that you must agree to scan an entire file which will then be made available online on the Archives website for others to use. You get to take a copy of everything you scan with you, so bring a flash drive. A large file can take a while -- one of the pension files I scanned had over 150 pages and took about 5 hours. But in the end you get high quality scans of the records you want and you help others get access to records online.
If you ever find yourself in Washington, D.C. with a free day or two, check out the National Archives and see if you can find some records that will help you with your genealogy research. Make sure you visit the other side of the Archives as well -- if you go in the main entrance you can see original copies of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.