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National Archives holds many treasures

Second of three parts.

By DONNA MURRAY ALLEN
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 26, 2002


WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Heading for the National Archives? Bring a photo ID and leave your cell phone elsewhere. Heightened security as a result of Sept. 11 means you'll be searched coming and going. A cadre of guards in the lobby subjects visitors and employees to metal detector scans, and purse and bag checks.

Toting a camera and a cell phone? Yet another guard will inspect those and record the make and model on a carbonized form. Hang on to the form. You must present it to the guard on your way out, where it will be matched against your equipment to verify that the gear you brought in is the same stuff you're taking out.

Once you pass muster, you'll get an identification card that gives you -- but not your cell phone -- access to the microfilm reading room on the fourth floor. Cell phones are banned in all reading and research rooms.

In the microfilm reading room, 150 machines, some with printing capabilities, enable researchers to view federal census records, military service and pension indexes, passenger ship lists, passport applications and other genealogical records. Most of the data is on the film.

However, if you're perusing a military service or pension records index and want to see the original documents, you must undergo further scrutiny. This involves toddling down the hall to obtain a researcher ID card, issued only to individuals older than 14 who possess a photo ID. (But first, jot down the numbers of all files you wish to request.)

A researcher card, required only if you will be handling original documents, entitles you to return to the microfilm reading room to complete a form requesting the file(s).

Original documents are exhumed from the inner sanctum and taken to the Central Search Room (or library) on the second floor, where you'll be permitted to view them and make copies of anything your heart desires. (Hint: Buy a debit card to use in the duplicating machines.) No records are pulled after 3 p.m. When files are pulled, they remain off the shelf for three days.

Successful researchers plan ahead.

"Be prepared when you come here," senior archivist Judith Thorne says. "Bring pertinent information with you. Know where your ancestors lived and basics like which side of the Civil War they fought on."

Thorne also suggests becoming familiar with the National Archives and Records Administration's holdings.

(Do this by logging on to www.archives.gov/

research_room/genealogy or by calling toll-free 1-866-325-7208.)

"We have an amazing collection of records going back to the Continental Congress and the formation of the country. We have Revolutionary War pension records and bounty land warrant documents," Thorne said.

"But we're a federal agency. We do not have state or county records. No colonial records. And no current records, except for a few passenger ship lists from the mid 20th century."

Sound overwhelming? It's not. Someone is always nearby to lend a hand.

"We have a large corps of volunteers," Thorne said. "And we have staff members who specialize in various areas. One might be a specialist in land records. Another on the Civil War."

Can't make a visit? You can nail down many resources online at the Archival Information Locator: www.archives.gov/research_room/nail/index.html.

Digitized records include more than 20,000 textual documents, still photographs, and maps and charts. Many of the archives' vast microfilm records, including federal census records, may be rented through an interlibrary loan program. Read more about it at the Archives Library Information Center: www.archives.gov/research_room/alic/index./html or contact a public library.

NEXT: Ordering records from the archives.

-- Donna Murray Allen welcomes your questions about genealogy and will respond to those of general interest in future columns. Sorry, she can't take phone calls, but you can write to her c/o Floridian, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731, or e-mail her at rootscolumn@yahoo.com.

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