Exploring Archives.gov

by Mary Beth Newbill, Southern History Department, Central Library

As our nation’s record keeper, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) looms large in the world of family history research. What genealogist hasn’t mined census, land, and military records in the hopes of finding a long lost nugget of information on their ancestors? Possessing over 10 billion documents, 12 million maps, and 25 million photographs, NARA’s holdings are vast and growing every year. But what, if any, of this bounty does NARA make available on its website, Archives.gov?

Sadly, most of the records held by NARA have not been digitized and made searchable. Of the records that are available online, most are accessible via subscription sites such as Ancestry.com or Fold3.com (see this handy chart for a list of NARA records that have been digitized and by whom). Archives.gov is not and probably never will be a one-stop shop for genealogy research. That’s not its goal or its purpose. What genealogists will find on Archives.gov is a treasure trove of information about every aspect of genealogy research, how to locate different types of records, and how to get the most out of them.

The best way for a family historian to begin peeling back the layers of Archives.gov (like NARA’s holdings, its website is vast) is to start with the link from the homepage for genealogists. This is the jumping-off point for all of the genealogy related content. Genealogists at every skill level will, I believe, find something of value within these pages. Let’s take a look at some of my favorite corners of Archives.gov.

Genealogy Notes from Prologue Magazine
Arranged alphabetically, each topic (African American History, Census Records, etc.) is a link to articles that previously appeared in NARA’s official magazine, Prologue. Some articles are case studies and others are more instructional, but all include information on how NARA’s records can be used to further genealogical research.

Know Your Records videos on YouTube
This incredible collection of online lectures and workshops should be front and center on Archives.gov, but for reasons unclear to me it’s one of the most obscure and difficult-to-find links on the entire site! Once you do find it, however, you will never want to leave. The videos are very substantial (some over an hour) and are conducted by archivists and records experts at NARA. There is a great variety of topics, from the general to the very specific. They have videos on getting started with genealogy, how to use Freedmen’s Bureau records, naturalization records, census records, and more. You can even stream previous workshops from the annual Virtual Genealogy Fair.

History Hub
Got a genealogy problem? Hit a brick wall? Post your query on the History Hub and see what the experts at NARA have to say! Reading the older questions and responses is a great way to see what records and techniques might be helpful for your research problem.

These are just a few of the features on Archives.gov that I think are wonderful for genealogists and might be flying under the radar. To see these and even more features, join us Sunday, May 5, 2019, 2:30 p.m., at the Central Library for our workshop, Exploring Archives.gov.
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Call the Southern History Department at 205-226-3665 for more information.