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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
The Museum Resource Center requires researchers to request an appointment. For the email addresses of curatorial staff, see this page.
3300 Hubbard Road, Landover, MD
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