Using the National Archives and Library of Congress Websites

Using the National Archives and Library of Congress Websites

By Dayna Jacobs, AG®

(For personal use only.  Please do not distribute or publish online)

National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)

Paper documents in the National Archives, laid end to end, would circle the earth 57 times.  They also have:

  • 93,000 motion picture films
  • 5.5 million maps, charts and architectural drawings
  • More than 207,000 sound and video recordings
  • More than 18 million aerial photographs
  • Nearly 35 million still pictures and posters
  • More than 3.5 billion electronic records

Volume grows at 1.4 billion pages per year, and they only keep 1-3% of all documents created by the federal government.


The NARA website is a great source of information on major record groups that are important to genealogists; one can find extensive instruction regarding military, immigration/naturalization, census, court, and land records, as well as links to articles and websites about these and other topics.


The NARA website ARC catalog describes federal record collections in detail, and therefore provides researchers a way to identify collections which might contain significant original sources for family history research. On a typical genealogy website one would search for the name of an ancestor, but that is not how research is done in the National Archives, nor on its website.

Records are not cataloged by the names that are contained in them, rather they are cataloged by what the series is and how it is arranged, such as, “Law Enforcement Case Files, 1952-1975. Navajo Area Office.  Arranged alphabetically by agency name, thereunder numerically by case number.”  It requires more effort to find relevant sources, and a trip to a regional or federal archive to view it, but one can be rewarded with original, textual records of the highest significance.

With National Archives research the goal is to determine how an ancestor might have interacted with the federal government and to identify which agency housed records of this interaction, because this will determine which Record Group they will be found in.  The NARA website, because of the power of its online catalog, allows a researcher to identify Record Groups, and then find subgroups and specific record series that might be relevant, and then to locate a record at a Regional Archive for viewing in person.

The NARA website does have some significant online databases, particularly for military records and passenger lists for Irish, Russian, Italian, and German immigrants.  This are found in “Access to Archival Databases” or AAD.


Often researchers find the name of an ancestor in an index for military pension, military bounty land, or federal land and want to obtain the complete file associated with this record. The NARA website provides online ordering for these and certain other records when specific details are provided.

  • Research Our Records
    • Research Your Ancestry
    • Explore genealogy resources related to specific topics
    • Online catalog guide for genealogists
    • Online research tools
    • Federal Records Guide (Record groups by topic cluster)
    • Microfilm catalog (Browse)
    • Access to Archival Databases (AAD)
    • Records commonly used by genealogists
    • Order Copies of Records
    • Microfilm catalog – all catalogs are online now
    • Keyword search Publication number and title Location of View “Important Publication Details”
    • No inter-library loan
    • Publications
      • Guides and finding aids
      • Inventories, Preliminary Inventories (PI), and Special Lists (SL)
      • Special List 29: List of Selected Maps of States and Territories
      • Reference Information Papers (RIP)
      • General  Information Leaflets (GIL)
  • Obtain copies of records  
    • The following can be ordered online if one has enough identifying information:
      • Military service
      • Military pension and bounty land
      • Federal land
      • Court
      • Naturalization
      • Passenger arrival
    • Visit a regional or federal repository
    • Hire a researcher to visit a repository
  • Contact us:  If you contact NARA by phone, email, mail, or fax they can help you by accepting your telephone, email, postal mail, or fax queries concerning the availability of records relevant to your research researching available indexes and other finding aids to determine whether we hold records relevant to your request offering reproductions of the records for a fee or recommending a research visit if necessary directing you to alternate sources of pertinent information when known

Library of Congress

The Library of Congress (LOC) website is a powerful free tool for genealogists, but is under-utilized.  Family history researchers might be surprised to know the website has digital images of maps, transcripts of first-person narratives, photographs, digitized and microfilmed newspapers and much more. We will learn how to find all of these, and will also learn how to use the library catalog to find personal and family histories you never knew existed!


“The Library of Congress was established by an act of Congress in 1800 when President John Adams signed a bill providing for the transfer of the seat of government from Philadelphia to the new capital city of Washington…

Today’s Library of Congress is an unparalleled world resource. The collection of more than 144 million items includes more than 33 million cataloged books and other print materials in 460 languages; more than 63 million manuscripts; the largest rare book collection in North America; and the world’s largest collection of legal materials, films, maps, sheet music and sound recordings…

As one of the leading genealogical collections in the country, the Library has more than 50,000 genealogies and 100,000 local histories. The collections are especially strong in North American, British Isles, and German sources. These international strengths are further supported and enriched by the Library’s incomparable royalty, nobility, and heraldry collection, making it one of a few libraries in America that offer such collections.

While the Library is rich in collections of manuscripts, microfilms, newspapers, photographs, maps, and published material, it is not an archive or repository for unpublished or primary source county, state, or church records.”


  • LOC Online Catalog – See ILL policies on p 3
  • Historic Newspapers
    • Digitized newspapers 1836-1922
    • Search pages – select state, year range, keyword
    • Advanced search – more search terms
    • All Digitized Newspapers – Show all digitized papers to browse
    • Browse
    • About
    • U.S. Newspaper Directory, 1690-Present
    • Determine which newspapers were published and where they are available on microfilm or in print
    • Access microfilm through ILL
  • American Memory
    • Immigration, American Expansion
    • California First Person Narratives 1849-1900
    • Prairie Settlement, Nebraska 1862-1912
    • Utah and Western Migration 1846-1869
    • Northern Great Plains 1880-1920
    • Ohio River Valley – 1750-1820
    • Washington and the Chesapeake Bay Region – 1600-1925
    • Cities – towns
    • Small-town America
    • Great Plains
    • Culture, folklife
    • Life histories, Federal Writers’ Project 1936-1940
    • Slave Narratives – audio interviews – 1932-1975
    • Southern U.S. – personal narratives 1860-1920
    • Native American History
    • North American Indian Photographs
    • Western U.S. Photographs
    • War, Military – Photos, maps, multi-media
  • Prints and Photographs
  • Veterans History
    • Search veterans collections
    • How to Participate (Submit a collection)
  • Maps – “Collections with Maps”
    • American Revolution and Its Era
    • Civil War
    • Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps
    • Click “locations”
    • Articles and Essays
    • Panoramic Maps 1847-1929
    • Railroad Maps Collection 1828-1900
    • Louisiana: European Exploration and the Louisiana Purchase
  • Topics:  American History – The website’s links organized by historical era
  • Especially for Researchers: Local history and genealogy –Bibliographies and guides
    • Searching tips
    • Acquiring published genealogies

Inter-library Loan Policies –  This information is taken directly from the LOC website:

For libraries in the U.S., the Library of Congress serves as a source for material not available through local, state or regional libraries. Requests are accepted from academic, public, and special libraries that make their own material available through participation in an interlibrary loan system. Participation is usually indicated by membership in one of the major U.S. bibliographic networks (OCLC, SHARES) or by a listing in the American Library Directory (Bowker) or the Directory of Special Libraries and Information Centers (Gale).

Sending a request via OCLC: The symbol for The Library of Congress holdings in OCLC is DLC, and items can be ordered by entering this symbol five (5) times in the lender field of the ILL workform for the record in the OCLC online catalog. If the lender symbol is entered fewer than five times, the CALM Division will conditionalize the request for reason of “policy.” The requesting library should see the policy message as a lender note, and respond “No.”

Avoid requesting:

  • Books that are in print and procurable through ordinary trade channels (except for U.S. Government agencies requests)
  • Materials classified as genealogy, heraldry, or U.S. local history unless in microform (CS, CR and F below 1000)
  • Bound and unbound periodicals, except for individually cited articles that can be photocopied
  • Rare materials and items published before 1801, excepting those in microform
  • Motion picture films, photographs, and sound recordings
  • Commercially available dissertations (except to U.S. government agencies)

In addition please note:

  • The CALM Division does not photocopy articles from newspapers in any format.
  • Allow a minimum of two weeks for most monograph and journal article requests and a month, or more, for newspaper and serial microfilms, music items, maps, Near Eastern materials, or other requests that must be transferred to custodial divisions.
  • Records with the holdings code “rqm” in OCLC are not necessarily owned by LC. These represent listings from the National Register of Microform Masters.
  • Complimentary photocopies of up to 25 exposures of many non-circulating items (excluding newspapers) will be provided whenever possible, and can be transmitted via Ariel if requested.
  • Requests for more extensive fee-based copying should be sent directly to the Photoduplication Service, a cost recovery operation separate from the CALM Division. The address is:

Duplication Services
101 Independence Avenue, S.E.
Library of Congress
Washington, DC 20540-5234
Fax: 202-707-1771
Phone: 202-707-5640

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