Know Before You Go

What You Should Know Before You Head to the National Archives

Many of us couldn't do our research without the hard work of our colleagues at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)—and given the constraints on their time, the better prepared we are on the front end, the better the experience will be for all of us. This is always the case, but especially when the SHAFR Conference is in D.C. and many of us combine our conference and research travel.

We've put together a little guide to help you in preparing for your trip. Please read this now so you can be prepared when you visit the archives, and point it out to those you know who are headed to the archive.

The more we know before we go, the better the experience will be for everyone!

For those SHAFRites planning to visit the National Archives, please keep the following in mind (especially during SHAFR conference time):

  1. It is always best to consult reference staff at least three-four weeks before arrival at the National Archives. The more complex your inquiry, the sooner you should make contact. Note that having only a Department of State "Lot" number is not sufficient to identify records. Making contact ahead of time is especially necessary if you are interested in:
  • more recent records (1960s and later);
  • records of agencies that deal with more sensitive government functions (such as State, Justice, Defense, the FBI, and the intelligence agencies);
  • records for which you have incomplete or partial identification (agency-assigned numbers, such as Department of State "Lot File" numbers, that do not carry over into use by the National Archives); and
  • records that have only recently been transferred to the National Archives.
2. NARA's turn-around time on reference inquiries can take up to three weeks, and you want to allow a little leeway; even sooner if you plan to have an exchange with the National Archives.

An effective inquiry consists of a succinct description of your research interest. Draw your inquiry narrowly. Requests for "everything you have" on a given topic will not lead to a useful response. Requests that are limited to one agency or a group of closely related agencies help the reference staff prepare informative responses. This approach may lead to multiple inquiries, but you will receive more complete information. You should send the same reference inquiry to only one address to avoid confusion and duplication of work.



The agency records of interest to most SHAFR members are located at Archives II in College Park. Queries on textual records at A2 should be sent to [email protected]. Inquiries about records at Archives I in Downtown DC should be sent to [email protected].

Researchers interested in special media records should use the following email addresses:

During SHAFR Conference in Washington, DC:

  1. Because of the increased number of researchers during the SHAFR Conference, unless you know exactly which records you want to see and the information needed to request them (record group number, entry number, box number/central files number--information that is in the National Archives Catalog or can be found in FRUS and secondary sources), please contact reference staff at least 3 weeks before arrival at the National Archives.
  2. The research room(s) will be busy and will probably be near or at full seating capacity.
  3. Even though NARA expects an increased number of on-site researchers at the time of the conference, NARA staff will make every attempt to assist individual researchers with their research requests. But please understand that NARA staff may have to expedite researcher consultations to ensure that all researchers are assisted.