The US National Archives

Based near the University of Maryland, I approached researching at NARA II with much trepidation having heard accounts from others who had encountered problems during their visit. For my experience, I encountered few problems in what was my final archival research visit as a PhD student. My next archival visit, will be as a post doctorate. Quite a thought!


Getting There

NARA II is based twelve miles from the centre of Washington D.C. There is a free shuttle bus which runs between NARA I, the main national archives building in the centre of D.C which you can use. Alternatively, you can catch the metro to College Park station and board the C8 bus which will take you to the archives but it only runs Monday to Friday, not Saturday. Other bus routes probably exist from various locations. For my own visit, I opted to drive and park at the archives. On their website, they advise to get their early as parking bays fill up quickly. When I was there, there was no issue with parking. I arrived each morning around 8.30am and there were plenty of free parking spaces. That being said, I would not leave anything to chance and would always prepare a backup just in case. You can park at the College Park station and grab the (Number) bus from there to the archives.

The Archive

On arrival, you will need to register. This is a speedy and hassle free process that requires filling out a quick form, having your picture taking and viewing a brief presentation before receiving your researcher’s card.

Due to the vast amount of materials held at NARA II, I opted to visit on the Saturday after I arrived to view the finding aids. Many of the finding aids are not online and not as organised as those in the research room and as there are no pulls on a Saturday, I would recommend going the guides in order to prepare for the Monday.

The one thing I noticed about NARA II is that there are SO MANY RULES! Some very reasonable but others border on trivial. However, rules are rules so it might be an idea to do your research on the DO’s and DO NOT DO’S before you arrive.

Requesting materials can initially look like a complicated process but there are plenty of staff on hand to help in the event you get stuck. BIT MORE. The pull times are at 10am, 11am, 1pm, 2pm and 3pm so get your request slip just before those times and they operate on a first come first save basis. You’ll pick up your materials from the circulation desk. When your materials arrive, the staff will write your name in a book on the desk. So keep checking the book.

If you are photographing your materials as I was, you will need to get a declassified slip from one of the staff. This is basically a slip of paper with a number on the top, which you will need to include when photographing a document. If you don’t do this, the staff will ask you to remove any photographs you have taken without the declassified number.

In the textual records room there are plenty of desks to work at, although with plenty of people working there it can get a bit noisy. The room is light and spacious however if the sun is shining you need to be tactical with where you photograph you materials to avoid shadows. You can also borrow photography equipment which I can only describe as holding your came in a vice over the documents you are photographing.

The Collection

The materials I wished to look at the State Department files. Unfortunately for me, the collection only goes up to 1976 with many of the papers from the department during the Carter years still unprocessed. However, there are some that are available. Specifically, the files from the Policy Planning Committee and the records of Anthony Lake.

Within the collection was a whole variety of materials ranging from draft speeches with handwritten annotations, policy guidance, memos and letters on a variety of subjects ranging from South Africa/Rhodesia negotiations, fall of the Shah of Iran and subsequent hostage crisis. The collection offered a real insight into what those on the Policy Planning Committee made of administration policy and how they attempted to shape strategy in relation to foreign affairs.

There are also some files from the National Security Council that must have only recently been declassified as it seemingly threw some of the archivists when I asked for a declassification slip. Nevertheless, there were few items in the boxes but some interesting finds including several minutes from NSC meetings during the Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations. Of note were minutes from April 1975 discussing the evacuation from South Vietnam prior to the fall of Saigon.

Where to stay?

For this visit I opted to stay in Chevy Chase, not related to the comedian, is an upmarket suburb about seven miles from D.C. Despite being a very affluent area, there were a considerable number of apartments available to rent during my stay in Chevy Chase or some of the other surrounding areas like Bethesda or Friendship Heights. It was only a twenty-minute drive to the archives, which was my primary reason for basing myself there.

What to do?

In relation to D.C. the question should be, what is there not to do?! Having visited D.C. a number of times now I feel as though everything I could do, I have done. For me, a walk up the national mall is always a worthwhile thing to do starting at the Library of Congress and the Supreme Court before heading past the Capitol Building.

Heading up the mall you have Smithsonian museums on either side: The Air and Space Museum, National Museum of the American Indian, the National Gallery, the National Archives, the Natural History Museum, the American History Museum and the Holocaust Museum. Under construction is the National Museum of African American History and Culture which is due to be completed and opened later this year. After proceeding past these museums you come to the Washington monument which dominates the landscape of D.C. and is fairly hypnotic and directly north is the White House while heading east will take you to the Lincoln Memorial and the Vietnam and Korean war memorials. Heading South will take you to the Jefferson Memorial and a walk around the Tidal Basin will lead you to the Franklin Roosevelt and Martin Luther King memorials.

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