While you certainly could find lots of important NARA information through a web service, you may miss out on valuable information the NARA holds regarding your family history. NARA has many federal documents of interest to genealogists beyond the national census, but many are not indexed, and few are available online.
What Records Does NARA Have That May Interest You?
NARA deals with documents between the federal government and citizens of the United States. They recommend that prior to visiting an NARA location, a genealogist think of the many ways their family may have interacted with the U.S. federal government. These may include: Immigration; Naturalization; Land Transfer; Military Service; Heritage in an ethnic group that had a particular connection to the U.S. government (African-Americans, Native-Americans, Japanese-Americans, Chinese-Americans)
Once you have brainstormed every possible relationship, you will need to add the approximate timeline of when these interactions took place, to make sure it was under federal jurisdiction. Federal immigration records, for example, begin in 1820. Naturalization wasn't granted exclusively by federal courts until 1906. Cases before this may be in local records, not the national ones.
NARA also has two separate facilities for military records. Washington DC houses records from the Revolutionary War to 1912, while WWI to the present are located in the National Military Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis, Missouri. You will also need to know your ancestor's branch of sevice, unit, and whether he or she was an officer or military personnel.
Which NARA Location Should You Go To?
Each NARA location houses different records. The main facility is located in Washington D.C., and there are 12 regional archives which house federal and local records. There are also additional research facilities, such as the NPRC. NARA recommends that you phone the archive you think is best suited to your needs. NARA employees will be able to tell you which records you need and where to best find them. NARA's website at www.archives.gov has links to each regional and affiliate archive, along with contact information and special notices.
Regardless of which location you go to, NARA advises you to get there early, preferably on a weekday so that you can take advantage of archivist help. You will also be issued a researcher's card, and if at the Washington D.C. or College Park, MD, locations, you will be given a brief orientation. NARA has strict guidelines about etiquette in their research rooms, so visit NARA's website to find out what you are and aren't allowed to wear, bring and do.
NARA – More Than a One-Time Visit
NARA is constantly receiving new records, so it pays to follow their announcements. This year, for example, NARA announced that they will begin receiving the Alien Files from the Department of Homeland Security in 2010. These individual immigration records are presently only available through a Freedom of Information Act request and contain valuable information and original documents presented by immigrants proving their identity.
NARA has also moved into the 21st century by starting its own blog, NARAtions. Besides announcing new resources, both at the NARA and on different genealogical services such as FamilySearch, archivists ask the public for input on what kind of research resources and projects they would like to see NARA tackle.