Two Steps Every Researcher Should Take

Every time I hear a story about a researcher spending money to travel to a National Archives facility only to find out the records they seek aren’t at that location, are unavailable for research, or that the reference staff are unable to assist the research in the short travel window they have available, I cringe. This is a very frustrating scenario, but it luckily it can be avoided by following these two easy steps:

Search the National Archives Catalog

Go to the National Archives Catalog and search for your research topic. If you’re having trouble finding relevant results, try narrowing your search with the refine options on the left side of the screen or by conducting an advanced search. Of course, if you have any questions about how to use the Catalog, please contact the National Archives Catalog staff.

Once you’ve found records that interest you and you decide to make a trip to a National Archives facility to view them, first confirm their availability by checking their Access Restriction(s) under “Details.” If “Unrestricted,” you should be able to view the records without issue. If “Restricted – Possibly,” “Restricted – Partly,” or “Restricted – Fully” then you may be unable to view them.


If you are interested in coming to view those records, bookmark the URL or note the National Archives Identifier (NAID) of the records. This will come in handy in the next step when you contact us.

Contact Us

Regardless of the Access Restriction(s) please contact the reference unit listed in the Catalog description under “Archives Copies.” It is very important that you contact us three or more weeks before any planned visit to give the reference staff enough time to do appropriate investigation and preparation. Some records are even stored offsite and require transfer to the research facility. If you don’t allow this time, staff may be unable to help you when you arrive.

Reference staff will be able to inform you of the availability of the records and possibly prepare them for your visit if available for research. Give them either the URL you bookmarked or the NAID you recorded. Please note, not all facilities will prepare records in advance of your visit.


visit1Even if you don’t find anything of interest, contact us. If you know which facility you need to visit, contact them directly (list of locations with contact information here). If you are unsure of which facility might hold records relevant to your interest, use the general contact us form. It’s possible the records you seek haven’t been described yet, or weren’t described in a way that corresponded to the keywords you entered in your search. A reference archivist will be able to help you further. Also, be sure to check our FAQs for answers to some of our most commonly asked questions.

Hopefully these tips can help you avoid some common roadblocks. Happy researching!


This entry was posted in Catalog, Online Research and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Two Steps Every Researcher Should Take

  1. Reblogged this on U.S. Lighthouse Society News and commented:
    Most of the lighthouse records are in the downtown D.C. National Archives with photos and drawings at the College Park, Maryland facility. This is a useful article for planning your research trip. The Society has more tips on their website at

    Liked by 1 person

  2. ree47 says:

    Very sage advice.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Roy Smith says:

    How do we replace outgoing father’s Army medals?


  4. Bestia says:

    I find that National Catalog is very slow to use, even here at the Archives. When I limit searches to just digital copies, I quickly give up. I find the Library of Congress site for Prints and Photographs much more effective.
    Thanks for useful article.


  5. Nikola says:

    Strong advice. Thank you for sharing


  6. Lazar says:

    Excellent, I really need this, thank you for your time for writting this


  7. Mercy O'Bourke says:

    My interest is in contacting a friend. We were close when we were growing up in Cuba, during our pre-teen and teenage years. We are now in our late 70s, looking back at lives well lived and forward to seeing our young ones (grandchildren) grow. I have a telephone number that doesn’t answer calls and I’m not fantastically healthy and would like to be able to speak with him again. Could you help me? He is Capt. Pedro Pablo Perez Hería, naturalized citizen, served in the army and is now retired in Florida.


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