I'm often asked for tips on researching at the National Archives. This post will cover your arrival, getting a researcher card, and requesting records. I'll cover record particulars later.
Over the past few years the National Archives (Archives I or NARA I) has undergone renovations, so when you're reading blogs that give research tips, check the date before you rely on any for exactly where you need to go.
When you enter via the researcher entrance, on the Pennsylvania Avenue side of the building, you'll first go through security. This is simple - you just put your bag(s) in a gray bin so that they can go through the x-ray machine and then you walk through the metal detector. From there, you go to the desk, show photo id, and fill out the researcher sign-in sheet. The security guard behind the desk will hand you a temporary researcher pass, which you'll clip to your clothing. If you come in before 9 am you'll wait in the lobby with other researchers until one of the guards calls "Researchers!" If you come in after 9 am, you'll be able to go right through the next set of doors, which will automatically open for you. Once you're through those doors, there will be a desk in front of you and two doors at each end of that room.
If you don't have a researcher card yet, you'll need to go to Registration, which is on the left. On your first trip its a good idea to be there by 9 am and go directly to Registration as soon as you're allowed in. Part of the registration process involves watching a Powerpoint presentation and there are only a few places available in the registration area, so they can get backed up. You'll sit down at a computer, go through the slideshow, and enter your information at the end. Then you'll go through the closest door, hand them your photo ID, get your picture taken, and get your card. It will be good for a year. When you come in after your first card has expired, bring photo ID and your old card. The process of getting your new one is really fast if you have both of those things. Since I first got my card they changed the way the wifi is set up so that you don't have to have a password for it, so you may not need them to set up access for you, but ask just to make sure. The NARA wifi can be really slow. Sometimes I use it and sometimes I resort to using my phone as a hotspot and give up on the wifi. The person who hands you your card will direct you to a computer to activate your card so that you can add money to it. Don't skip this step, even if you think you'll never need to make a copy. If you decide that you do want to print from a microfilm reader or make a copy you will be able to add value to your card in the research room, but only after you've activated it on one of the lobby computers.
So now you've got your researcher card. The hallway past the desk where you got your photo taken and your card leads to restrooms and the locker room. When you walk back out into the room where the registration computers are, the other door at that end leads to the microfilm room. If you’re looking for microfilm, when you go past the desk and into the room, there’s a small table with the entire list of microfilms on it. They are arranged by microfilm number, so you’re going to need to find out the number before you try to find out where it is stored. I can sometimes find the numbers via the NARA microfilm catalog website and sometimes via searching the NARA website. This is one of those places where you really want to ask for help, as there’s lots of microfilm at this location.
In addition to viewing microfilm in this room, you can request military service, pension, and bounty land files at that desk. Pick up a form from the table opposite the desk, fill it out, and hand it to the staff member behind the desk. They’ll look it over to make sure its filled out correctly and that records is not closed for digitization or already on Fold3.com. If everything is fine, they’ll write the pull time on it and hand it back to you. You’ll put it in the box on the table behind you.
On the opposite side of the lobby, the door on the left leads to where you submit requests for any record other than those you request in the microfilm room. There are staff members working in this room who specialize in Navy, Army, and Civilian records. Anything you’re looking for that pertains to ships will fall under Navy, whether the ship is military or not. The most commonly requested civilian records are land records. If you need Congressional records, you need to ask for them to call upstairs for someone. They don’t get enough requests to keep someone down there, but they’ll send someone right away.
The other door on that end of the lobby leads to the Innovation Hub. You can scan records there for free. In return, you get a copy and a copy is added to the NARA online catalog. When you submit your request, ask about having the records sent to the Innovation Hub instead of to the 2nd floor records room where you'll usually view records.
There's one really important thing you will want to do while you're at NARA. Ask questions. Don't worry that its too basic or off topic, ask. The staff are knowledgeable and they're nice. You don't want to go home and start wondering about something, especially if it might be the only time you get to go there. ASK. In keeping with that, if I've left you with questions or created new ones, please ask.