National Archives

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NATIONAL ARCHIVES. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is America's national record keeper. By law NARA is charged with safeguarding records of all three branches of the federal government. Its mission is to assure federal agencies and the American public ready access to essential evidence documenting the rights of citizens, the actions of government officials, and the national experience.

NARA appraises, accessions, arranges, describes, preserves, and provides access to the essential documentation of the three branches of government; manages the presidential libraries; and publishes laws, regulations, and presidential and other public documents. It also assists the Information Security Oversight Office, which manages federal classification and declassification policies, and the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, which makes grants nationwide to help provide access to materials that document American history.

While the need for a central, safe repository for government records was acknowledged from the early days of the republic, storage systems before the twentieth century were decentralized and haphazard. The offices that created the records also stored them, keeping them in whatever space happened to be available. Over the years, records were lost, destroyed by fire, or otherwise made nearly inaccessible. The National Archives Act, signed by President Franklin Roosevelt on 19 June 1934, established a new agency to care for the records of the federal government and ensure that they endured for future generations. In 1949 the National Archives was put under the control of the General Services Administration, but it became an independent agency again—the National Archives and Records Administration—in 1985.

NARA currently holds approximately 7 billion pages of textual records; 5.5 million maps, charts, and architectural and engineering drawings; 35 million still photographs and graphics; 16 million aerial photographs; 56,000 machine-readable data sets; and hundreds of thousands of motion picture films and video and sound recordings. Much of the archival material, including special media such as still and motion pictures, sound recordings, maps, and electronic records, is housed in the National Archives at College Park, Maryland, and in the original National Archives Building in Washington, D.C.

Eighteen regional records services facilities located across the country house records from the federal courts and the regional offices of federal agencies in the geographic areas they serve. More material resides in NARA's records centers, where agency-owned records are held as long as legally required before destruction or transfer to the National Archives.

Providing storage for inactive records in these centers is part of NARA's records-management operation. To ensure proper documentation of the organization, policies, and activities of the government, NARA develops standards and guidelines for the management and disposition of recorded information. NARA also appraises federal records and approves records-disposition schedules, inspects agency records and records management practices, develops training programs, and provides guidance and assistance on proper records management.

In addition, NARA contains a unique resource in its presidential libraries and presidential materials projects, which document the administrations of Presidents Hoover to Clinton. These institutions, though not strictly libraries, contain—in addition to museums—archival collections of records (textual, electronic, visual, and audio) from the Office of the President and presidential commissions, along with personal papers of the president, his family and associates, and members of his administration.

Another part of NARA, the Office of the Federal Register, publishes the daily Federal Register, a record of government proclamations, orders, and regulations; the weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents ; and the annual Code of Federal Regulations, along with The U.S. Government Manual and Public Papers of the Presidents. It is also responsible for receiving and documenting Electoral College certificates for presidential elections and state ratifications of proposed constitutional amendments.

The National Historical Publications and Records Commission is NARA's grant-making affiliate. Its grants help state and local archives, universities, historical societies, and other nonprofit organizations strengthen archival programs, preserve and process records collections, and provide access to them through the publication of finding aids and documentary editions of papers related to the Founding Era, to other themes, and to various historical figures.

NARA is continually expanding the availability of its resources through the Internet. The NARA home page directs visitors to such resources as the "Research Room" (offering guidance on using NARA records), the "Exhibit Hall" (bringing NARA exhibits to a wider audience), the "Digital Classroom" (presenting resources for students and teachers), the Federal Register, and Prologue, NARA's quarterly magazine. The Archival Research Catalog, an online database, will eventually describe all of NARA's holdings and make the descriptions accessible through an easy-to-use search form.

NARA also offers a variety of public programs to bring its resources to a wide audience. In the Washington area, at regional archives, and at presidential libraries, visitors may attend lectures, exhibits, film screenings, and conferences.

Records held by NARA are arranged into numbered "record groups." A record group comprises the records of a major government entity, such as a Cabinet department, a bureau, or an independent agency. For example, Record Group 59 contains General Records of the Department of State, and Record Group 29 holds Records of the Bureau of the Census. Most record groups also contain records of predecessors of the organization named in the title.

A great number of records have been recorded on microfilm both to preserve them and to make them more available to researchers. NARA has microfilmed more than 3,000 series of federal records, and copies are located at the two Washington-area archives buildings and in the various regional archives around the country.

The federal government documents people's lives in many ways, not only in censuses, court records, and records of immigration, military service, and employment but also in records such as scientific surveys or diplomatic correspondence. Records in all NARA locations provide information on government actions that have affected the entire nation and the individual home.

The Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives of the United States is the single major work that briefly describes the holdings of the National Archives. It is published in print format and on the web. The online version is regularly updated.


U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Home page at

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