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Washington, D.C., History Resources

A guide to the local history resources available on the District of Columbia.

Federal Repositories -- Intro

The repositories and the historic sites maintained by the government -- the  Library of Congress, National Archives and Records Administration,  Smithsonian Institution, and National Park Service -- attract visitors from all over the world. Because their presence in the nation's capital has shaped their collecting focus, they are significant custodians of the local history of Washington, D.C. This section will provide tips to help orient students to these repositories, whether they are visiting virtually or in person. References to specific collections held by each repository are noted throughout this guide.

Library of Congress

Founded in 1800 to provide research services for Congress, the Library of Congress functions as the national library. It collects all books published in the United States, maintains the copyright registry, and establishes standards for libraries nationwide. 

Research Centers

The Library of Congress has 21 research centers for its general, international and special format collections. This organization reflects the collecting strategies and specialized knowledge required to maintain specific subject areas and the peculiar conservation concerns of media such as audio, newspapers, or photographs. Even though the Library website enables researchers to make connections between these centers, it is still useful for beginning researchers to consider the objectives of each research center. The complete list of these centers is available here.

Collections cited in this LibGuide are from the following research centers. For some projects, researchers will need to visit these centers in person for resources on Washington, D.C.

  • Main Reading Room (Jefferson Building) the principal reference and book service point for the general collections: it is possible to access books and bound periodicals that are difficult to find in other local repositories in a reading room that is a stop on tours of the nation's capital.
  • Geography and Map (Madison Building) the largest and most comprehensive cartographic map collection in the world: it includes street maps and topographical maps of Washington, D.C.; maps of the surrounding states and counties; and maps drawn for particular purposes such as military defenses or engineering projects. 
  • Manuscript Reading Room (Madison Building) a collection comprised of more than 70,000 items organized into 12,000 manuscript collections: when this room opened in 1897, several of its collections were acquired from people well known for their work with the D.C. government, business, and society. Librarians initially focused on acquiring manuscripts of political, military, and diplomatic figures, but their collecting interests have shifted to include national figures, particularly government officials, organizations, and major cultural figures. A complete list of its collections and finding aids is available here.
  • Newspaper and Current Periodicals (Madison Building) a collection of daily newspapers and serial publications available in original format and microfilm: see this list for the newspapers available at the Library of Congress, organized by decade, and a guide to periodicals. Visitors to the Library can study full-text newspapers and databases listed here. (Note that many of those databases are available to the Georgetown community).
  • Prints and Photographs (Madison Building) a collection of more than 16 million images that includes photographs, historical prints, posters, cartoons, documentary drawings, fine prints, architectural and engineering designs that is especially strong in documenting the history of the United States: approximately 95% of the images are posted online with downloadable images. Researchers should be aware that some photo collections can only be viewed on the intranet site that is available only to visitors. It also may be necessary to visit the Library to get images that can be used in print publications.

Electronic Resources

It is possible to use the Library of Congress website for consolidated searches of all the research centers. Researchers can search book holdings on its catalog. For digital collections, see this portal

Visitors' Information

  • Researchers may want to visit the Library of Congress to use its collections, as much of it has not been digitized. The Library also makes available an intranet site that includes some of the Library's digital reproductions and its database subscriptions.
  • Visitors to the Library of Congress must register for a researchers' identification card and be aware of its rules and procedures.
  • A guide for researchers using the Library of Congress is available here


 The Library of Congress is located on Capitol Hill across the street from the U.S. Congress and Senate office buildings. A map of the campus is located here.

  • Thomas Jefferson Building, 1st Street, SE, between Independence Avenue and East Capitol St.
  • James Madison Memorial Building, Independence Avenue, between 1st and 2nd Sts.
  • John Adams Building, 2nd Street SE, between Independence Ave. and East Capitol St.

National Archives and Records Administration

National Archives and Record Administration is the repository for the records of the federal government. Its holdings include some seminal documents, such as the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Bill of Rights, and the Emancipation Proclamation. It is also the custodian of important genealogical records such as the census, military service records, and lists of the passengers arriving through customs that document immigration. Since the District of Columbia is under federal jurisdiction, the National Archives is an essential repository for primary source research.

Record Groups

The National Archives organizes its records into record groups, each of which consist of records created by an individual agency or bureau. For example, commonly consulted record groups used by researchers interested in Washington (or any locality) include:

There are several record groups of special interest to researchers of D.C. history:

  • Record Group 21: Records of the District Courts of the United States. Entry 10: Records of the District and Other Courts in the District of Columbia
  • Record Group 42: Records of the Office of Public Buildings and Public Parks of the National Capital
  • Record Group 132: Records of the Rent Commission of the District of Columbia
  • Record Group 302: Records of the National Capital Planning Authority
  • Record Group 328: Records of the National Capital Planning Commission
  • Record Group 351: Records of the Government of the District of Columbia

The National Archives transferred a limited number of records in its custody, especially records of the District and Other Courts from the District of Columbia (RG 21), to the District of Columbia Archives. 

Digital Resources

The National Archives has digitized selected documents and images that are available by conducting keyword searchers on its National Archives Catalog. Researchers should not expect to find extensive digital reproductions on that site, as the National Archives digitization efforts rely upon private partnerships with companies such as Ancestry, HeritageQuest, and Fold3. Researchers can find a list of original records and microfilm publications digitized by these partners.. This list includes links to external sites but in most cases a subscription is required for full access to these digitized publications.

The National Archives has extensively reproduced its holdings on microfilm to meet the demands of researchers. These publications, which can be ordered from the Archives, are listed here.

Visitors' Information

Extensive research into the holdings of the National Archives generally requires a visit since it has not digitized considerable portions of its collections. It also makes available to visitors the full catalogue of its microfilm and digital publications, including subscription databases such as Ancestry and Fold3. Visitors can also consult with archivists who can provide an orientation into the Archives and deeper information on records of interest. Researchers are required to register. For more information, see this page which elaborates upon its rules and procedures.


The National Archives has two buildings in the Washington area

Smithsonian Institution

The Smithsonian Institution consists of 23 units and is the world's largest museum, education, and research complex. The best known of these museums are located on the Mall, including the National Museum of African American History and Culture, National Museum of the American Indian, and the Arts and Industry Building. Other museums located in Washington include the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Anacostia Community Museum, and Renwick Gallery of American Art Museum. The Smithsonian maintains a storage center that preserves its collections of three-dimensional objects, photographs, works of art on paper, sculptures, textiles, audiotapes, videotapes and other moving images, ephemera and other media that support its museum exhibits.

Electronic Resources

Recently, the Smithsonian has strengthened its commitment to opening its collections to researchers. It has begun digitizing photographic images, prints and broadsides, artifact photographs, and other media. Although there are a limited number of materials related to the local history of Washington, it is worth checking this growing collection for images. The digital collections can be accessed on its home page.


Several units have materials related to D.C. history, but the richest collections can be found in the following units:

  • Smithsonian Institution Archives, 600 Maryland Avenue, S.W., preserves manuscripts that complement its artifact collections, the organizational papers of the Smithsonian units, and oral histories. As the principal custodian of Smithsonian history, it holds valuable sources related to the cultural history of Washington, D.C.
  • The Archives of American Art, 750 9th Street, N.W., is a widely used research center dedicated to collecting, preserving, and providing access to primary resources that document the history of the visual arts in America. Its digital collections are extensive and searchable by catalogue, subject, and creator.
  • Anacostia Community Museum, 1901 Fort Place, S.E., works with urban communities to create museum exhibits focused on community and local history. Although the museum has expanded its scope to include urban communities more broadly, its historical focus has been the Black community of the District of Columbia. It has preserved rich manuscripts, objects, and other media that have supported exhibitions on the Anacostia River, Black churches, Black immigration, and gentrification in Washington.

National Park Service, National Capital Region Museum Resource Center

The National Park Service has established the National Capital Region's Museum Center to preserve and make accessible over 5 million objects related to its parks and sites in the National Capital region. These include archaeological and natural history specimens, manuscripts, photographs, ephemera, historic furnishings that document the use of land and buildings in the region. These sources can be especially useful to researchers interested in the environmental and architectural history of the region. There also is opportunity to use these materials as sources for the study of slavery, race, politics, and transportation.

A list of parks and historical sites with associated collections maintained at the center are available here. Those of interest to those studying the District of Columbia include:

Visitor's Information

The Museum Resource Center requires researchers to request an appointment. For the email addresses of curatorial staff, see this page.


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