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 http://www.footnote.com
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.