The National Archives

The National Archives, officially known as the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), is an extensive and invaluable collection of governmental and historical records located in Washington, D.C., the capital of the United States. Established in 1934, it serves as the nation's record keeper, safeguarding and providing public access to billions of documents, photographs, maps, films, and other important artifacts that trace the narrative of the United States' history.

The National Archives' cornerstone attractions are the three Charters of Freedom: the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. These seminal documents are proudly displayed in the rotunda of the main building, offering visitors a chance to view the very foundations upon which the United States was built.

However, the National Archives' collection is far more extensive than these three documents. Its vast assortment of materials encompasses over 13 billion pages of textual records, millions of maps and photographs, and many more. This wealth of information deals with every conceivable topic and period in U.S. history, from the earliest colonial records to the latest digital data from recent administrations. The collection also includes important international artifacts, such as an original version of the 1297 Magna Carta, one of the most important legal documents in the history of democracy.

In addition to its main building in Washington, D.C., the National Archives operates numerous facilities throughout the country, including presidential libraries, regional archives, and federal records centers. These institutions collectively store and manage documents for all three branches of the federal government — executive, legislative, and judicial. The National Archives also actively promotes the use of these records in education and research, providing resources and programs for teachers, students, genealogists, historians, and other researchers.

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Why visit the National Archives?

A visit to the National Archives is a dive into the depths of American history, offering an unparalleled opportunity to connect with the past and understand the present. Here's why you should consider adding it to your travel bucket list:

  1. To see the Charters of Freedom. Few experiences in American historical exploration can rival the profound impact of seeing the original Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution, and Bill of Rights. These foundational documents have influenced the direction of American democracy and continue to resonate in today's political landscape.
  2. To explore an immense collection of records. The National Archives houses an incredibly diverse collection of documents that span the breadth of U.S. history. From letters penned by historical figures to wartime photographs, from patent applications to census records, the Archives offers a kaleidoscope of perspectives on America's past.
  3. To connect with history. There's a unique thrill in seeing an original historical document. It provides a tangible connection to the past, making history come alive in a way that textbooks or digital copies can't emulate.
  4. To engage with educational programs. The National Archives is not just a place to view records; it's a hub of knowledge-sharing and education. With a robust schedule of public programs, including lectures, workshops, film screenings, and special exhibits, there's always something new to learn.
  5. To experience cutting-edge digital resources. As the government's record keeper, the National Archives is at the forefront of digitizing records and making them accessible online. For technophiles, this provides a fascinating glimpse into the challenges and opportunities of preserving digital history.
  6. To enjoy free admission. Like many public museums in Washington, D.C., the National Archives is free to visit, making it an easily accessible resource for everyone, from families to students, to history enthusiasts and international visitors.

Best places to visit near National Archives

  • The U.S. Capitol. One of the most iconic buildings in the United States, the U.S. Capitol, houses the legislative branch of the U.S. government. You can take a guided tour and view the stunning architecture and art.

  • The Smithsonian Museums. A collection of 21 museums, galleries, and a zoo has something for everyone. Some of the closest to the National Archives include the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

  • The National Mall. This iconic stretch of land includes famous landmarks like the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. It's a great place for a stroll and to soak in the history and beauty of D.C.

  • The Library of Congress. The largest library in the world, it has millions of books, recordings, photographs, maps, and manuscripts in its collections.

  • The National Gallery of Art. This museum houses an extensive collection of European and American art, including works by Mark Rothko, Claude Monet, and Leonardo da Vinci.

  • The U.S. Botanic Garden. This living plant museum boasts beautiful outdoor gardens and the historic Conservatory with a tropical forest, desert plants, and stunning orchids.

  • The Holocaust Memorial Museum. This powerful museum is dedicated to documenting, studying, and interpreting the history of the Holocaust and offers a deeply moving and thought-provoking experience.

  • Ford's Theatre. The historic site of Abraham Lincoln's assassination is now a working theater, historical monument, world-class museum, and learning center. It’s a unique place where you can step back in time and learn about the events of April 14, 1865.

  • International Spy Museum. This private non-profit museum is dedicated to the tradecraft, history, and contemporary role of espionage and gives you a chance to step into the shoes of a spy.

What are the most interesting and unique facts about the National Archives?

  • The Rotunda, the central part of the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C., was specifically designed to display the Charters of Freedom. The documents are protected by bulletproof glass filled with argon gas to help preserve them.

  • The National Archives holds an extensive collection of World War II posters. These posters were used as a propaganda tool and are a fascinating glimpse into the social history of the time.

  • One of the most impressive features of the building is a pair of enormous bronze doors leading to the Rotunda. Each door is 38.7 feet high, 10 feet wide, 11 inches thick, and weighs 6.5 tons.