Sunday, May 31, 2009

Fun and Echos at the National Archives

So the other week I was down in DC for a few days and we went to the National Archives.

Back in the old days children, when you wanted to do research on your family tree, you didn't sit on your behind in front of your computer in mismatched pajamas drinking wine...oh wait, is that just me? But anyway, there was no internet, and if you wanted to see original records, you had to go to an archive, maybe local, or maybe in salt lake, or maybe the National Archives.

I went there a couple times back in the 1990s on saturdays. It was a vast room filled with microfilm machines and lots of people hunched over spinning through them at very fast speed, then abruptly slowing down when something relevant was spotted, then speeding up again. You had to get there early (since it was a saturday) and claim your machine. You were only supposed to pull one film at a time, but everybody would sneak a couple from the rows and rows of little boxes.

One thing I miss about using the machines is you got a really big view of whatever record you were staring at, not a little computer screen. Also, I would often put a piece of paper over the screen and trace someone's handwriting if it was something I couldn't read, so I could go back later to my notes and see exactly what was written.

So on a lovely Saturday afternoon we headed over to visit the National Archives. First we went to the museum part and saw the Declaration of Independence and Constitution and all that stuff. You weren't allowed to take any pictures with flashes and the guards really worked hard to put the fear into you. If you took a picture with a flash, they would come and get you and take your camera, your first born and your left leg.

A lady standing in front of us went to take a picture of her companion (not any of the documents) and the flash went off. Several of us actually gasped out loud and we looked around waiting for SWAT guys to drop from the ceiling and take her away. But nothing happened. So I think they were just trying to scare us.

After the museum part, we headed over to the library part just for old times sake. The security guards not only x-ray'd all our stuff, but they actually took the serial numbers from our cameras and cell phones.


Out of all the national monuments we visited while down there, this one was the most difficult to get into with all that, and they told us it was to protect us in case there were thefts.


I still don't get that. Are there a lot of shady researchers and genealogists skulking around the library at the National Archives? Stealing jewels and making deals and stabbing partners in the back?

Anyway, so we found the library and microfilm area and...there was no one there.

It was totally empty. There were two girls, clearly interns of some sort, sitting at the desk in the microfilm reader room and they seemed pretty surprised to see us.

But, it was a saturday afternoon!! Where was everybody????

I guess with so many records available online now, there's just not as much of a need to travel there in person and search. It seemed like such a waste, all those machines, all those records right there and no one was using them! I felt vaguely nervous about it. If it's empty, will they take it away? I hope not!!


  1. And they had built a whole new room filled with whole new machines and whole new chairs. Expensive chairs! No more busted-down, worn out painful chairs. These empty chairs were new and expensive.

  2. Oh, my! I'm going with my genealogy society to the National Archives on Tuesday. We had a speaker at our conference who spoke on the land records there - most of those are not on line. So there are a few things that still make a visit to NARA worthwhile.

  3. By the way, I have nominated you for the Janice Brown Puckerbrush Blog Award for Excellence at