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My trip to NARA (College Park)

Posted: Tue Aug 03, 2010 6:47 pm
by MadDog
I thought it might be useful for me to recount my recent (Monday) trip to NARA at College Park, Maryland.

I was visiting relatives and I didnt think I would really get there, but the opportunity presented itself, so I took it. This is the first time I have been there (or to any NARA facility).

The College Park campus is fairly new, large, and well-equipped. I was hoping to take pictures, but I got sucked in getting documents and copying them, and I totally forgot.

The first thing you need to know is that you need a picture ID to enter. I dont know how this impacts visitors from another country, but you should enquire before you go, just to be sure.

I imagined something like a large library, so I was a little surprised to note that your possessions go through an x-ray machine when you enter the building. There are guards. This is serious.

If you bring a computer, or a camera, you have to register it. Cell-phone cameras (like my iPhone) were not a big deal and I didnt have to register it.

Once you enter, register your equipment, You have to register as a researcher. THis requires you to read a 5 minute PowerPoint presentation and get your picture taken and fill out a short form. You then get a groovy plastic picture ID which doubles as a copy card. For once my picture did not look like a convicted felon, so I was pretty happy. The picture ID good for one year.

Up to now, the entire process took 15 minutes. Maybe traffic was slow on Monday, but it was fairly painless.

Now, you are very limited in what you can bring past the lobby. No paper items unless they get inspected and stamped. No electronic equipment unless registered of ok-ed. This includes scanners. From talking to the archivists it appears that a plain-jane flatbed scanner is ok as long as they look at it first. OK, back to the "no" list.... no pens. No overcoats. No big hats. No Bags of Holding. No bags/backpacks. No jackets.

Got the idea so far ? You cant bring anything in that could be used to smuggle items out. I never really thought about this, but it makes sense given my later experiences.

OK, you can put your "no" items in a key locker provided in the basement. You need a quarter, but you get the quarter back when you are done.

OK, now you get to go to the good stuff. College Park is divided into floors. If you are reading this, you are most likely interested in the Second and Fourth (Fifth ? I cant remember now...) floors.

The second floor is text records and the Fourth (Fifth?) is for microfilm.

I only spent 15 minutes in the microfilm room, but I noticed that the walls were covered with racks of microfilm - the stuff that most of us here want to get. OKH, Field command, SS, etc, etc... its all there. Apparently, you can just grab a roll, stick it on a viewer and read it. You can copy frames at 0.5 dollar each, so its not mass-copying friendly. I know they use a Mekel III automated scanner , so it might be possible to request a digitized roll on the spot, but I never asked. Its good to hope.
They also have some microfiche there for the Foreign Military Series documents, but its the same material you can download at much easier. They also had a lot of index files there, but I hardly got to read any.

OK, the second floor is the big one. More records, and a much larger space. Here is how it works:
You go in, and register at the desk. Once you register that day, you dont have to register going in again. Any time you leave, you have to go to the desk and show them anything you are taking out. So, the first step in the process is to go to the index section. This is where they have stacks of index books you can browse, and some archivists that can help you locate items. Dont forget to be friendly. Being nice helps.

If you have some vague idea of what you are looking for it helped. I didnt have much time, so I used my iPhone to photograph the index files for RG407 - US corps records. One of the archivists was kind enough to help me fill out a request for some Foreign Military Series documents (the ones that are not easily available).
Each day, there are fixed times when you submit requests. 10, 11, 1:30, 2:30 are the times that are typically used. You have to fill out a request form that precisely identifies what you are looking for. Dont ask for too much at once.

After you submit the request, it takes ~1 hour for them to retrieve the files. You have to check back at the Circulation desk, and if they are ready, you sign out the files, and they are brought to you, in boxes, on a cart.

What can you do with the files ? Well, they have "short use" photocopiers (dont be a hog), and you can reserve other photocopies for an hour, and some for a whole day. They have a large format book scanner (~1m x 1.5m), although it wasnt working that day. Most of the photocopies are black and white, but I think they had some color ones. Apparently very large maps can be sent to the Cartography section for copying, but I wasnt able to try this.

Photocopies cost 0.25 dollars each, and is paid for by putting money on your card you got when you registered as a researcher. You can use cash or credit card. Pretty painless. The book scanner costs $1.25 each copy. As of this point, except for the book scanner, there is no digital output. just paper copies. I also need to note - when you go to copy something, you need to show an archivist what you are copying, to make sure the material can take being copied.
Yes, this means you can get the originals. I was very surprised to find that my 3 boxes of FMS documents were the originals. Not only were some items in color, but there were large maps that are not otherwise copied when you order them online or special request. Let that sink in - only by copying the originals can you be guaranteed of getting it all (at least for the FMS documents).

Now if you have your own scanner (and I saw people with them), the process gets a lot cheaper. Scan away. There are plenty of desks with overhead lights and power plugs (and really nice rolling chairs - swanky !)

So, I wasnt planning on staying very long - just become familiar with how it worked. I ended up photocopying documents like crazy until they closed at 5:00 and security had to taser me and throw me out of the building.

When you try and leave, once again, you have to show a guard everything you are carrying. No naughty business !

I will be back. I could easily spend weeks there and barely touch the total inventory.

So, think of this as a FYI if you havnt been there.

Mad Dog

Re: My trip to NARA (College Park)

Posted: Thu Aug 05, 2010 9:48 am
by william russ
Hi MD,
Been there, done that. I see not much has changed since I was there a few years ago. However, the cost of making copies has gone up. When I was there it was 25 cents a copy! This does give other prospective visitors an idea of what they are in for. I hope to get back one day myself. There is so much to look at (and look for) :D .

best reards, Bill

Re: My trip to NARA (College Park)

Posted: Thu Aug 05, 2010 10:06 am
by Piet Duits
Next thursday, I will be going to the Bundesarchiv-Militärarchiv in Freiburg.
Only one day, more free time is not allowed by Her In Command :-)

Due to a major rebuilding of the old reading room, the reading room has been moved up in the flat ("Hochhaus"), limiting the number of researchers by more than half.
I'll try to write a simular story as from Tom about my visit.

Re: My trip to NARA (College Park)

Posted: Thu Aug 05, 2010 12:30 pm
by Richard Hargreaves
Piet Duits wrote:Next thursday, I will be going to the Bundesarchiv-Militärarchiv in Freiburg.
Only one day, more free time is not allowed by Her In Command :-)

Due to a major rebuilding of the old reading room, the reading room has been moved up in the flat ("Hochhaus"), limiting the number of researchers by more than half.
I'll try to write a simular story as from Tom about my visit.
The last time I was a BA-MA the place had the feeling of a ghost ship: minimal staff (always very helpful and friendly), material took ages to turn up and quite a lot of the bound Findbücher volumes (I much prefer those to the computer version...) were missing. :( Sadly the scary middle-aged Frau who walks around saying "Achtung" a lot wasn't... :shock:

I've always tried to order as much as possible in advance so it's there waiting for me... rather than me waiting for it. :D

There was talk at the time of moving BA-MA to another location (possibly Berlin or Potsdam). It sounds like that's been put on hold then.

Re: My trip to NARA (College Park)

Posted: Thu Aug 05, 2010 1:49 pm
by Stephan H.
So I know this thread was supposed to be about the NARA, but I do have a comment/question about the BAMA. When I was doing research on Bloody Streets, I was told by the BAMA that significant documents on Volkssturm operations were housed in an Annex in Postdam (I think this was the location). Even though they offered to arrange a visit for me when I was in Berlin, I unfortunately didn't have time to visit. Anyone else been there? Any feedback on what they house in their archives? I haven't found anyone who has been there yet.

Otherwise, excellent thread Tom!


Re: My trip to NARA (College Park)

Posted: Thu Aug 05, 2010 2:02 pm
by Richard Hargreaves
Try Jack Sheldon over at the Great War Forum, Stephan. I know he's been to Potsdam a few times.

Re: My trip to NARA (College Park)

Posted: Thu Aug 05, 2010 7:58 pm
by MadDog
Piet, that is an excellent idea ! I also know a researcher who is familiar with the British archives. Maybe I could get him to post a something similar.....



Re: My trip to NARA (College Park)

Posted: Thu Aug 05, 2010 8:47 pm
by Scott Revell
Thumbs up Tom for a great post!!

Re: My trip to NARA (College Park)

Posted: Thu Aug 05, 2010 9:41 pm
by Ricardo Silva
Congratulations on that great post MD,
reading it, was almost like one could see it for itself, great description.
It would also be great if there were a posting about the british archives, and why not canadian, russian or italian? There are members of the forum in this and other countries directly involved in the ETO during the 2WW, so it could be very helpfull for everyone looking to do some extra research to have an insight to those institutions.
In my case, portugal's major archive: ANTT (Arquivo Nacional, Torre do Tombo) doesn't hold any particularly interesting documents about the 2WW, because of my country neutrality in that conflict (we had plenty others during the rest of that century), so, it doesn't make much sense to make a description of it.

Re: My trip to NARA (College Park)

Posted: Thu Aug 05, 2010 10:16 pm
by Piet Duits
Richard Hargreaves wrote:Sadly the scary middle-aged Frau who walks around saying "Achtung" a lot wasn't... :shock:
Hahahaha, once you get to know her, she can be very cooperative :-)

Re: My trip to NARA (College Park)

Posted: Fri Aug 06, 2010 7:34 pm
by MadDog
The Canadian and Italian archives are also a great idea. THe Russian archives would be great, but TsAMO is almost impossible to get into from what I hear. Does France have a good WW2 archive ?

Mad Dog

Re: My trip to NARA (College Park)

Posted: Fri Aug 13, 2010 8:48 pm
by MadDog
John Howes was kind enough to write up something on the British Archives. So, thank you, John.

Visiting the National Archives at Kew

Much useful information can be obtained in advance of your visit by referring to their website at

The archives are situated at The National Archives, Kew, Richmond, Surrey, TW9 4DU.

This is on the Western outskirts of London and is easily reached by Public Transport. I normally travel there by Underground (District Line in the direction of Richmond) alighting at Kew Gardens station. It is about 5 minutes walk from this station and well signposted.
For other routes such as bus or London Overground railway see their website: (

If you intend to visit by car (after 31st August 2010) it is necessary to reserve and pay for your parking space in advance (currently £5 per day). Details of how to arrange this and make payment is on their website ( ... g-faqs.pdf)

The Archives are open from 09:00 Tuesday to Saturday (closed on Bank Holidays). Closing time is 17:00 hours with late nights until 19:00 hours on Tuesday and Thursday. The last document ordering time is 16:15 (17:00 on Tuesday and Thursday).

There is a restaurant/cafeteria on the ground floor which opens serving coffee at 08:30.

There is a large cloakroom on the Ground Floor where lockers are available to leave your coats and bags. There is no charge for lockers.

Clear plastic bags are available here for you to carry your pencils (no rubbers!!), notebooks and camera/computer. You will only have to transfer these items to a clear bag if you intend to go into the Reading Room to view original documents.

The Public area is on the first floor and here you will find many computer terminals where you can search the Archives Catalogue and many other websites which are linked.

You do not require a Readers Ticket to view material (which is on microfiche or film) in this area but if you want to look at original documents you will need to obtain a Readers Ticket.

This is quite straightforward and you will need to register on one of the computer terminal in the Reader Registration room, located on the second floor and then complete the process at the registration desk in the same room. You will require two forms of identification. One needs to be proof of your name with a valid signature (such as Bank or Credit Card) the other is proof of your address such as a utility bill (Gas, Water, Electric).

In the guidance notes it states that if any of these documents are in a language other than English an official translation is required but I’ve taken Dutch friends to register and they’ve never had problems. (see ... ticket.htm)

The most difficult thing is to find the reference number for the documents that you are looking for. There are plenty of staff at help points to give you assistance but I would suggest spending some time using their “Catalogue” online before you visit.

The Catalogue is available at ... lt.asp?j=1.

Select “Search the Catalogue” and a screen will be displayed with fields on three levels.

Only the first field needs to be completed and my advice is to make this as simple as possible (at least in the early stages) using, where possible, single word searches. The search engine is quite particular and success depends on matching key words in your search with words by which the document has been recorded in the Catalogue.

You can combine words in the search text by using (uppercase) AND. (Example Resistance AND Holland).

Words can be truncated and part replaced by a wild card (Example Parachute = Para*). There are further examples and search tips on the data entry screen.

The next field is the Date Range – I would strongly recommend using this to restrict the number of results returned.

The final field is the Department Code. The most popular ones will probably be WO – War Office, AIR – Air Force or ADM – Admiralty. It is probably worth leaving this blank for your first few searches and you will soon discover the various Department Cods that will be of interest to your research.

The National Archives have produced many very useful Reference Guides which will provide some extremely useful information and point you to the File Series where you should find the information that you are looking for.

These can be picked up during your visit but, once again, can be viewed and downloaded from their website at ... ex.asp?j=1

Once you have decided what original records you want to view you can order them from any of the terminals in the public area.

You will be asked to swipe your Readers ticket. The first thing that you will be asked to do is to select a seat. The available seats will be displayed and you should select one. All seats have power terminals so you can plug in your computer etc, Please note that scanners are not currently allowed so I would recommend taking a digital camera.

You are not allowed to use flash and are requested to set it to a silent node to avoid annoyance to others. The same applies to computers – it can get very irritating to listen to all the Windows starting up first thing in the morning.

Some of the desks have camera stands so if you intend taking a lot of photographs you should select one of these. Don’t worry if you’ve already selected a seat as the staff in the Reading Room will normally be happy to accommodate any moves that you want to make.

Ordering documents is fairly simple. The “Order Documents” screen is selected and you will be asked to input the document reference number that you want. This will be the reference number of the document that was displayed when you undertook your se4arch in the Catalogue. It comprises three parts.

1) The Document Series – letters such as WO, ADM or AIR
2) The Series part number – normally up to three digits
3) The document reference – up to five digits

Thus you would end up with a document reference similar to ABC 123/4567

You can order up to three documents at a time and these will be delivered to a glass fronted box in the Readers Room. The box will have your allocated seat number on it.

Documents take about 40 minutes to arrive. Once you have your first documents you can then order another three so you can keep going through the day without wasting time waiting for documents to arrive.

You collect your documents from your box and take them to your allocated desk. Depending on the type of documents that you have there are restriction on the number of documents that you can have on your desk at any one time. There are notices which clearly display these restrictions.

It goes without saying that at your desk you are required to handle the documents with care. Bound books should be supported and there are large numbers of black foam supports at various locations throughout the room. You are not allowed to untag documents and you will find that there is CCTV surveillance and officials patrolling at all times that will draw your attention to any infringements that you may inadvertently make.

If you require a copy of a document and don’t have your camera you can take it to one of the photocopying points. These are self service and cost 20 pence per page. You will have to put money onto your Readers ticket at one of the machines located adjacent to the copiers. The staff at the nearby help point will show you how to use the copiers.

You can also have high definition copies of documents and maps etc made at the copying centre. This is quite expensive but the results are always excellent and always worthwhile for large or folded documents as they can untag the file and lay the document flat on a scanner. This is not a “while you wait “service and the images can be sent to you on CD or collected about a week later.

Once you have your Readers ticket you can order documents online in advance of your visit. In this way you can order up to six documents which will be waiting for you on arrival.

If you are coming for a few days you can also reserve any documents that you already have out for up to one week.

It’s certainly worth visiting the Archives but if you intend doing so I would suggest that a bit of advance planning will make your visit much more successful.

National Archives in Kew

Posted: Sat Aug 14, 2010 1:50 am
by Leo Niehorster
I would like to add to John Howes' comments regarding the National Archives in Kew. The staff is plentiful, polite, available, particularily pleasant, astoundingly helpful, and last but not least, amazingly knowledgable. As indicated by John above, the facilities are great. (I for my part can do without the missing-up-to-now, annoying scanner noise and lights. Although perhaps a separate room could circumvent the disturbance to other users.) And can be easily reached by public transport.

I even like the cafeteria. Not at all British Rail "standards", thank heavens. :wink:

Frankly, as a long-time visitor to archives all over the world, I can think of no better archives to visit.

Re: My trip to NARA (College Park)

Posted: Tue Aug 24, 2010 4:53 am
by goodwillberlin
great post!

Re: My trip to NARA (College Park)

Posted: Tue Aug 31, 2010 10:28 am
by Richard Hargreaves
Fingers crossed I should be visiting BA-MA at the end of September for a few days so it'll be interesting to see how things have changed following all the building work (which apparently ends in about a week's time).