The Society for Military HistoryThe intellectual home for military historians worldwide

The intellectual home for military historians worldwide

National Archives Building (a.k.a.: NAB or Archives I), Washington, DC
by Laurence Burke
Carnegie Mellon University

This is the original building of the National Archives, located in central Washington on Pennsylvania Avenue, between the Capitol and the White House.  Though the building itself is almost 80 years old, there are many modern amenities.  Its collections are vast and include official records of each of the armed services and the State Department, as well as White House and Congressional documents.

Given the size of the Archives’ holdings, it is vitally important to do research ahead of your visit.  The National Archives’ website has a number of links for researchers that you should consult early in your trip planning process.  A list of record groups will help you zero in on what you are looking for and where it might be.  Descriptions of individual record groups tend to be extensive, but are not necessarily all-inclusive, especially for older and/or less requested series and subseries.  The website also has links to aid in getting in touch with an archivist.  As the National Archives has locations across the country, this consultation is an important step for your trip: the archivist can direct you to where your records are held, and may be able to direct you to a site closer to you with duplicate records.  Generally speaking, Army, Navy, and Marine Corps records through the First World War are in Washington, while Army, Navy, and Marine Corps records from the Second World War and later, along with Air Force records, are held at College Park.  However, the “break point” between records at the two sites varies by record group, series, type of material, or even security classification.

If you are consulting microfilm, it is not necessary to get a researcher’s card, as the microfilm itself is in self-serve cabinets immediately behind the Research Center.  If you are looking at other collections, head for the Military Service Research Room first, which can be found directly off the Research Center Lobby.  Here you will find an archivist in your specialty who can direct you to finding aids more extensive and detailed than what you will find online.  Once you have confirmed that the NAB holds records you wish to pull, then you must obtain your researcher’s card from the staff, which you will use to request your documents.  Be aware that there are only a few set pull times per day, and that you will need to wait for about an hour after the pull times to get your records.  Plan to arrive early to allow time for orienting yourself, doing the necessary research to pull your records, and to get your researcher’s card, as well as to put in one or two requests to catch the next pull.  In some cases, you may need to pull original indexes before you can request the actual documents.  While waiting, you can take your time considering subsequent requests and completing the pull forms, or checking microfilm.  There is also a small reference library which has, for instance, copies of the Annual Reports of the Secretaries of the Army and Navy.  Talk to the archivist about how long your trip is: he or she may be able to give you advice about scheduling document pulls.

The Archives has an excellent and extensive microfilm reading area, with open outlets available in the reading carrels.  Photocopying microfilm readers are available, with a per-copy fee.  These do not accept cash, but you can put money on a card.  The research room has open outlets for laptops that can be found are under the desks.  Laptops, cameras, tripods, and some scanners may be taken into the research room (see the website for details).  Wireless internet is not available, but there are a few computers for access to the archive’s online material only.  The National Archives Building has lockers of various sizes available, along with carts which may be used if you have a lot of equipment to transport to the research room.  Copiers are available in the research room for all materials, to include fragile and oversized records.  As with the microfilm copiers, these use cards, not cash.  There is also a photographic copy stand for public use, though researchers are requested to limit their time on this.  Archival weights, supports, and plexiglass sheets are available for public use.  There is food service in the basement, but be aware that it closes early, even on the days that the research room is open late.  You may leave your equipment and materials in place and leave the building for lunch; there are many lunchrooms across the street and in nearby blocks.  Or you may bring your own food and eat in the basement where there are also vending machines.  Many of the closest eateries are closed for dinner and on Saturdays, but there are many full-time restaurants (at a variety of prices) within walking distance, north on 7th St.

Washington is expensive: expect to spend close to $10 for lunch, even at fast-food places.  Dinner is also pricey: expect to pay at least $15, even at a “cheaper” place downtown.  Your hotel will undoubtedly be able to tell you about restaurants nearby, but if you’re looking to get out a bit more, try the many restaurants of Chinatown, which is four blocks or one Metro stop north of the Archives.  You might also check out some of the watering holes along Pennsylvania Ave. SE from the Library of Congress down to 8th St. and then south on 8th toward the Marine Corps Barracks.  Other, personal favorites you might otherwise miss are “Tortilla Coast,” a Mexican restaurant on the corner of 1st and D SE, which has nightly specials, and “Bullfeathers,” just a few doors further south on 1st.  When Congress is not in session, Bullfeathers’ kitchen closes early.

There are many options for hotels: you will have to decide for yourself how to balance price with distance.  Prices are generally lower in the winter, particularly when Congress is not in session.  You may find it worth investigating the “boutique” hotels – they may appear more expensive, but some include kitchenettes and/or breakfast buffets which may help you keep food costs down.  Some may have special rates for early booking on their website.  Hotels near Capitol Hill are more likely to have discounted rates in the off-season and when Congress is not in session.  Most hotels are in the NW quadrant of DC, but don’t pass over the few hotels south of the Mall:  The Best Western Capitol Skyline is an older hotel with few amenities in an area that is still a bit sketchy after dark, but has good off-season prices, while the Courtyard Hotel at the Navy Yard is quite new and more expensive, but has microwaves and mini-fridges in the rooms and is just a very short walk away from the Navy Yard Metro station on the green line.  If you’re driving, expect to pay anywhere from $10-35/night for hotel parking, even outside of downtown.  One way around these costs is to share the room with other grad students who also have research to do in Washington.  Since Washington is home to a plethora of archives, graduate students congregate here in droves.

There is very little parking in Washington generally, and what there is tends to be very expensive. I strongly advise you to plan to get around by walking or using buses or the Metro system.  The Archives/Navy Memorial station is on the green line, and directly across the street from the researcher’s entrance to the Archives.  If you plan to make many trips to DC, it is probably worth it to purchase a SmarTrip card ($5) which can be loaded with money and is more flexible than Metrocards as it can be used on Circulator and Metrobuses as well as the Metro.  Plus, if you register it, you should be able to recover its value if it is lost or stolen.   Regardless of how you plan to do it, be sure to budget for getting around DC.

No matter which way you slice it, research in DC is expensive.  The prudent graduate student will do as much pre-planning as possible to get the most out of his or her time (and money) spent in Washington.

(Summer 2010)