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National Archives Frequently Asked Questions
These are introductory answers to frequently asked questions about the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and our holdings and services.
Select a subject from the menu on the left to view questions and answers relating to your selection.
Links will guide you to further information on our website or to other sources.
About the National Archives
What is the National Archives ?
The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is the nation's record keeper. Of all documents and materials created in the course of business conducted by the United States Federal government, only 1%-3% are so important for legal or historical reasons that they are kept by us forever.
Those valuable records are preserved and are available to you, whether you want to see if they contain clues about your family's history, need to prove a veteran's military service, or are researching a historical topic that interests you.
How do I do research at the Archives?
Borrowing NARA Materials
Does NARA lend original documents for research?
NARA does not lend original documents for research use.
Originating Federal agencies or successors in function; courts; and the President, Vice President, former Presidents or Vice Presidents or donors, or their designated representative may request loans of their own original holdings for the conduct of official business. Loans to originating agencies are limited to instances of demonstrated need when copies will not suffice and are subject to conditions that exempt from loan any holdings of high intrinsic value or in need of preservation action.
Does NARA lend original documents for exhibition use?
Yes, original documents or artifacts may be loaned to qualified institutions for exhibition when the purpose of the loan is to inform and educate the public about NARA, its holdings, or the national experience while ensuring their continued availability for the future. Exhibitions must be accessible to the public and may not be primarily political or commercial.
Borrowers should submit a written request 180 days prior to the loan date and include an American Alliance of Museums
or equivalent. NARA's security, fire protection, environmental, and transport requirements are intended to preserve and protect NARA's holdings and borrowers are expected to comply with them.
Captured German Records and the Berlin Document Center
What is the Berlin Document Center?
The records of the Berlin Document Center consist of personnel and related records of the Nazi party (NSDAP) and its affiliated organizations and activities from the founding of the Party in 1920 until 1945.
NARA holds more than 70,000 rolls of microfilm reproducing captured German and related records
. Reference copies of the microfilm may be viewed free of charge in the Microfilm Research Room, National Archives at College Park
, 8601 Adelphi Road, College Park, MD 20740-6001.
Self-service copies from microfilm can also be made in the research room.
How do I get the records for someone who was in the SS or a member of the Nazi party?
How do I get census records?
Please note that the 1940 census
is the most recent one available for research. You can also access information about the 1930 census
Some libraries and other research institutions have purchased copies of Federal censuses. Check with your local library or genealogical society to see if the census may be available in your area.
Can I order copies of census materials by mail?
NARA will only copy exactly identified pages of the Federal census. To use this service, you must provide the following:
name of the individual listed
enumeration district (1880-1920 only)
Copies of the exact census page can now be ordered online
, as well as through the NATF Form 82
(National Archives Order for Copies of Census Records).
What if I don't know the exact page of the census?
You might be able to find census indexes near you. Check with your local librarian or genealogical society. Private firms have produced indexes to census records for specific years, generally 1790-1870. These are widely available throughout the country in libraries that have genealogical collections. In addition to these printed indexes, there are microfilm indexes to the 1900 and 1920 census and partial indexes to the 1880 and 1910 census.
From these indexes, you can determine the exact page on which a family was enumerated. With that information, you can use the NATF Form 82 to order a copy of the page. Use the online Inquire form
to request NATF Form 82.
Charters of Freedom
What are the Charters of Freedom?
The Charters of Freedom
are the founding documents of the United States. They are the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.
Where can I get copies (reproductions) of the Charters of Freedom?
How do I get U.S. House of Representatives or U.S. Senate committee records?
How do I get U.S. House or U.S. Senate hearing testimony?
Some hearing testimony is available via the Internet at the Library of Congress
. In addition, published hearing testimony is generally available through the Federal Depository Library system
. There are approximately 1,350 Federal depository libraries throughout the United States and its territories, at least one in almost every Congressional District. All provide free public access to a wide variety of Federal Government information in both print and electronic formats and have expert staff available to assist users. You can find more information about this system on the Government Publishing Office website
Do you have footage of Congressional hearings and speeches from C-SPAN?
C-SPAN is a private organization not affiliated with the government. You may contact C-SPAN
How long do Congressional records stay closed?
Congressional records remain closed for varying lengths of time depending upon several factors. More information is available in the Records of Congress
section of our website.
May I reproduce images from your website?
The vast majority of the digital images in the National Archives Catalog
are in the public domain. Therefore, no written permission is required to use them. We would appreciate your crediting the National Archives and Records Administration as the original source. For the few images that remain copyrighted, please read the instructions noted in the "Use Restriction(s)" field of each catalog
Please note that a few images on other areas of our website have been obtained from other organizations and that these are always credited. Permission to use these photographs should be obtained directly from those organizations.
May I reproduce other NARA records?
In general, all government records are in the public domain and may be freely used. We do have some donated or other materials that might be copyrighted. If you have questions about the records you are interested in, speak to the archivist or reference staff that handles those records.
Can I get a signed permission form from NARA to use materials?
NARA as a policy does not sign documents stating that particular records are not copyrighted because government records are in the public domain. For other materials, it is the user's responsibility to determine copyright.
What court records does NARA have?
NARA only has records of Federal courts. We do not have records from state or county courts. Federal court records are kept in the Regional Records Services Facility
that covers records from that state.
The one exception is the District of Columbia. These court records are in the National Archives Building in Washington, DC. Please contact us
if you have questions and please include where the records were filed.
How do I use the National Archives to research bankruptcies?
Where can I research Supreme Court decisions?
Many sources exist for locating Supreme Court decisions both in print and electronic format.
The Court itself provides an excellent finding aid, Where to Obtain Supreme Court Decisions
, on its website. Textual Supreme Court
records are also held in the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, while recorded oral arguments are in the National Archives at College Park. Please contact us
if you have questions.
Most research into Supreme Court decisions can be done with printed sources at Federal Depository Libraries.
In addition, please be aware of the following caution from the Supreme Court concerning electronic versus print versions of decisions:
"Only the bound volumes of the United States Reports contain the final, official text of the opinions of the Supreme Court of the United States. In case of discrepancies between the bound volume and any other version of a case--whether print or electronic, official or unofficial--the bound volume controls."
Digitizing Projects at the National Archives
Can you tell me about digitizing projects going on at the National Archives?
NARA recognizes that the expectation of easy online access to our holdings continues to grow. Research is no longer relegated to libraries and research rooms but is being done around-the-clock on computers around the world. To meet this need, we will create, to the greatest extent possible, an “archives without walls.”
We plan to create digital versions of selected records, including those most requested by researchers. Digitizing materials from our holdings will improve access to those holdings and will help preserve and protect the original materials from excessive handling.
To help achieve those goals, we are in discussions with several private companies and non-profit organizations to explore mutually-beneficial opportunities to digitize -- and make available -- our holdings. The resulting non-exclusive partnerships will become an important component of our effort to further expand online public access to our nation’s archival records.
As we expand and enter into more of these partnerships, we will provide news about these pilot and longer-term projects; see more information about Digitization at the National Archives
Can you tell me about or appraise my historic document?
The National Archives does not appraise or look at privately owned documents or artifacts. To find an appraiser in your area, you may wish to contact the ABAA
(Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America).
How do I preserve a photo or other family documents?
Personal documents are no less valuable than government records and care should be taken for their proper storage. You can find more information in the Preservation
section of this website.
Does NARA purchase old, historic pictures or accept them as donations?
NARA does not add to its holdings through purchase. We may accept offers of donations when the documentary materials involved are closely related to Federal records already in our custody. When documentary materials don't have a close Federal connection, we direct potential donors to other appropriate archival facilities.
What is the Electronic Records Archives?
In the Federal Government, electronic records are as indispensable as their paper predecessors for documenting citizens' rights, the actions for which officials are accountable, and the nation's history. Effective democracy depends on access to such records.
But we will lose the millions of records being created in electronic forms unless we find ways to preserve and keep them accessible indefinitely. The Electronic Records Archives (ERA) is NARA's vision for a comprehensive, systematic, and dynamic means of preserving and providing continuing access to authentic electronic records over time. You can read more about the Electronic Records Archives
on this website.
You can search the CFR and browse through the editions.
Can NARA help me find someone?
The National Archives does not have information to help you locate living individuals. The records in the custody of NARA are usually at least 20-30 years old. Information on living individuals is protected by the Privacy Act. NARA records, therefore, are not helpful in providing current information about individuals.
It seems the forms change regularly. How long do they last?
NARA has close to 600 forms, and some forms change regularly.
Forms last until the office that created them cancels them.
If there is a particular form that you have used but can no longer locate, you may contact us
for assistance in determining the form's status.
How can NARA help me with genealogy research?
How do I get started with genealogy?
How do I find ancestors of Native American descent?
Where can I get a copy of my ancestor's passport?
Passport applications can be an excellent source of genealogical information, especially about foreign-born individuals. NARA has passport applications from October 1795 through March 1925; the U.S. Department of State has passport applications from April 1925 to the present. More on Passport Applications
What is Soundex, and how does it work?
The Soundex is a coded surname (last name) index based on the way a surname sounds rather than the way it is spelled. Surnames that sound the same, but are spelled differently, like SMITH and SMYTH, have the same code and are filed together. The Soundex coding system was developed so that you can find a surname even though it may have been recorded under various spellings. More information on Soundex.
How do I research my family name?
How do I research when my family entered the country?
Where can I get copies of ship passenger lists?
There are many other sources for these records, including an online guide at the Library of Congress
. Your local library, historical society, or genealogical society can be helpful. For online research, simply begin by choosing a search engine and entering the words "ship passenger lists."
Can I see Ellis Island or other immigration records online?
NARA does not hold those records, but some Ellis Island records are available online from the Ellis Island Foundation
How do I get a copy of a Homestead application?
Reproductions of land entry files (such as credit, cash, homestead, and mineral) or surrendered military bounty-land warrants files (Acts of 1788, 1812, 1847, 1850, and 1855) can now be ordered online
, as well as through the NATF Form 84
How can NARA help me trace my Canadian lineage?
How can NARA help me trace my Latin American lineage?
How do I find information about a lighthouse or a lighthouse keeper?
How do I find information about a postmaster?
Which military records should I use for genealogical research?
NARA has many military records that can be used for this purpose. More detailed information is available on the Military Records FAQ
Where can I find other help with my genealogical research?
Get help with your research and find answers to your genealogy questions from National Archives staff as well as other genealogists at History Hub
Government Employment Records
I worked for the Federal government at one time. How can I get a copy of my personnel file?
What is History Hub?History Hub
is the National Archives' free crowdsourced history and genealogy research platform. Anyone can ask questions and get help from National Archives staff and other experts, history enthusiasts, and citizen archivists.
Where can I find Federal Laws?
The general and permanent laws of the United States can be found in the U.S. Code
The Office of the Federal Register's Public Laws
is a good place to research, or sign up for email notification of, recently enacted laws.
New laws can be further researched at the Library of Congress
. It has the complete text of laws from the most recent Congress back to the 101st Congress (1989-1990). You can find summary and status information, but not the full text, back to the 93rd Congress. (1973-1974). GPO Access' Legislative Information
website provides additional information.
Federal laws are codified in the United States Code, the most recent edition of which is available to search or browse.
Where can I research State laws?
State laws are generally available in larger public and academic libraries. In addition, most state codes are available on line at each state's website. State websites can be searched on the USA.Gov website
Missing or Stolen Federal Documents
I have a document that may be a Federal government record. I wonder if it should be in the National Archives. What should I do?
If you know of a document that you believe is a Federal record and belongs to the National Archives you can also contact us via e-mail at MissingDocuments@nara.gov
Motion Picture, Sound, and Video Recordings
Does NARA have motion picture, sound, and video recordings?
Why aren't all the records online?
NARA tries to make as many records as possible available via the Internet. This is a daunting task, even with records that were created in electronic format. More information on this effort is available at Digitization at the National Archives
The volume of records in NARA's possession that pre-date electronic formats is so vast, that costs and resource availabilities will most likely preclude the conversion of all of them to electronic formats. However, as resources permit, NARA will continue to select records to be digitized and made available electronically.
Do you have records from the construction of the Panama Canal?
Yes. Please contact us
with a question about the specific records or information you are looking for.
Is photocopying allowed at NARA?
by researchers is permitted under specified conditions in most research rooms, using:
National Archives in-house equipment such as a coin or card-operated electrostatic copiers and microfilm printers, and, less frequently, snapshot copiers, dubbing devices, and others;
Researchers' own equipment ranging from cameras to scanners, that has been specifically approved by the National Archives for work with the records in question. See also our information on using scanners
I'm interested in Presidential materials such as speeches, proclamations, Executive Orders, etc. Where can I find them?
Presidential materials are first published in the daily Federal Register
. They are then issued by the Office of the Federal Register in the Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents
. The Weekly Compilation
is published every Monday by the Office of the Federal Register, and contains statements, messages, and other Presidential materials released by the White House during the preceding week. The White House website
is also a useful source for current Presidential documents.
Presidential materials are codified as Title 3 of the Code of Federal Regulations.
The publication is available in both electronic and print formats and can be found in Federal Depository Libraries
. The online Weekly Compilation
is full-text beginning with the Clinton Administration.
Executive Orders (EOs) can be difficult to research. The full text of EOs is available online beginning with the Clinton Administration. Bear in mind, however, that they are not static documents. They often change over time. In addition, they can be repealed or superseded by subsequent Executive Orders. The Executive Orders disposition tables
on this site can be very helpful in locating an Executive Order and in determining its current status.
Executive Orders and Presidential Proclamations have also been commercially indexed and filmed on microfiche by the Congressional Information Service (CIS index to presidential Executive Orders & proclamations. Washington, DC: Congressional Information Service, 1986-). These indexes and/or microfiche may be available in a local library.
Does NARA have a sales catalog?
Where can I get copies (reproductions) of items displayed in one of your exhibits (online or not)?
NARA sells reproductions of some of the materials it exhibits. The Publications section
describes the items available and provides ordering instructions.
Do you sell exhibit catalogs?
Yes. NARA does sell catalogs
for many of its exhibits.
Where can I find the text of a treaty?
The printed series U.S . Treaties and Other International Agreements
is the best source. It is not online, but should be available in most Federal Depository Libraries
Until 1948, treaties passed by the U.S. Senate appeared in the Statutes at Large, which should also be available in a depository library.
Various other compilations and sources also exist. These may be available in a local library. Other single treaties may be available online and can be found using your favorite search engine.
United States Code
The U.S. Code is a consolidation and codification by subject matter of the general and permanent laws of the United States.
How do I get to an online copy of the U.S. Code?
Using the Website
How can I find something specific on your website?
We have tried to organize the website to make our most often accessed offerings easily findable via browsing.
In addition, we have made many improvements to our search engine to make it an effective and efficient means of locating information. Search the site
If you have any problems with our website, please contact us
so that we can make any necessary improvements.
Visiting and Using the National Archives
Where is the National Archives located?
The headquarters of the National Archives is located in Washington DC. In addition, a system of Regional Records Services facilities and Presidential libraries spans the entire country. Information on locations and hours can be found at NARA Facilities
How can I best use the National Archives for research?
Often research can be conducted in local libraries or historical societies. Our Getting Started
document can explain differences and similarities between NARA and libraries.
How can I best prepare to conduct research in the National Archives?
Who can use the National Archives?
Can I bring and use cameras, scanners, and laptops?
In the Washington area, you may bring equipment. All bags and carrying cases must be left in lockers outside of the research room.
Cameras may be used only with natural light.
Flatbed scanners without sheet feeders are allowed. When you are using a scanner, you must show it to the research room staff and receive special instructions. More information on using scanners
Can I use my pen and notebook?
Because of the fragility and irreplaceability of many archival materials, restrictions for their protection are in place. We will provide blank paper and pencils.
"Vital records" most commonly refers to records such as birth and death certificates, marriage licenses and divorce decrees, wills, and the like. These records are created by local authorities and with possible exceptions for events overseas, in the military, or the District of Columbia. They are not considered Federal records; therefore they are not held by NARA. For more information:
What are essential records?
In a Federal records management context, the term "essential records" refers to records essential to an agency's continued operations during a national emergency. NARA provides Essential Records Information
to assist agencies with developing and implementing an essential records program.
National Archives Catalog
Access to Archival Databases
Other Helpful FAQs
Need More Information?
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