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How to take your writing research to the next level

From the Library of Congress to the Smithsonian Institution, national research resources abound for the curious writer. Here’s how to use them.

 

National Archives

Another place to start your research is the National Archives, a U.S. government agency with around 3,000 staff that calls itself “the nation’s record keeper.” Many people associate the National Archives with its museum, an institution that displays the nation’s three founding documents – the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights – but it offers so much more. The National Archives holds the valuable records of the U.S. government’s three branches as far back as 1774 and the first Continental Congress.

The National Archives comprises more than 40 sites across the United States, including field facilities and the presidential library system. Records are usually 25 years old when they arrive at the Archives, having spent time at their original home agencies first.

While the Library of Congress has “collections” that organize content by subject matter, the National Archives has “record groups.” For example, the State Department has a record group number and, under that, a series of records.

Missy McNatt, education specialist for the National Archives, estimates that it holds approximately 15 billion pages of records. Of those pages, there are millions online already, with a plan to digitize 500 million more pages by 2024. That year is also the deadline for all federal agencies that send records to forward everything in digital format only.

Whether researching onsite or online, the best place to start is the Archives’ online catalog or the finding aids, which are tools that help users locate information within a particular record group, such as an inventory or index. “Archivists create finding aids to share their knowledge,” explains McNatt. “The key to successful research is finding the archivist who knows about your topic. Archivists have deep knowledge about records series.”

Before conducting any onsite research, you must figure out which field office holds the records of interest, and it may not always be the office you think. For example, records for a federal agency in Virginia would be housed in the Philadelphia field office. “If researching Native American tribes, records will more than likely be found in field offices in Fort Worth or the Denver area because the Bureau of Indian Affairs was more prominent in those states,” says McNatt. “But there’s no hard and fast rule for any of this, so you always need to check to make sure.”

Regardless of the research topic, McNatt emphasizes that the more focus you can bring in with you, the more success you’ll have in the research process. Similar to what you can do at the Library of Congress, you can call and email archivists at the National Archives. “The archivists are there to help and are very customer-friendly,” says McNatt. “But they can’t help you if you don’t know what you’re looking for.”

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Rachel K. Reilly, senior research associate for Taylor Research Group (TRG), agrees. Reilly has a Master of Library and Information Science, specializing in archives, records management, and preservation. Even so, she recommends reaching out to staff. “Use those librarians and archivists. They’re experts in what their repositories hold,” she says. “Also contact them if you’re not finding what you need. Pick their brains. That’s what they’re there for.”

Reilly conducts historical research and writes reports on her findings for TRG’s clients. She’s also the primary content creator for TRG’s blog and newsletter. Whatever the project, she starts with the National Archives and Library of Congress. “I always begin with a bird’s eye view of the universe of records,” she says. “I can get a quick sense of which agencies will have them, and then I know who to reach out to.”

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