While we all like to let our readers know about successful genealogical findings, I think it is equally important to let them know of our mistakes so they can benefit and (hopefully) not make the same ones. This is one of those posts ...
My mom and I traveled to Washington, DC from Fredericksburg, VA last Thursday for the sole purpose of conducting some research at the National Archives. To say I was completely unprepared for that step in the grand scheme of things would be an understatement. I went to the NARA website to determine what records they had available before I did anything else. Let me just say that it's hard to determine whether NARA has the records you seek ... unless you know exactly what you are looking for. I was obviously doing it wrong ... in any case, my entire research trip ended up being a bust. I was glad to have been able to visit the Archives just so I could say I was there, but I really would like to have something to show for it besides the awesome Researcher Card (identity hidden to protect the innocent). The card is valid for 1 year, but is renewable so you don't have to go through the painful photograph process more than once!
They have very strict rules about what you can and cannot take into the Archives. A list is available here. Be prepared to spend at least 20 minutes getting through security (if there is no line) and another 20 minutes getting your Researcher Card. My advice: get there before they open and check in before the crowd arrives. You can sign in and get your visitor badge, put your stuff in a locker, and get breakfast or something. That's what we did. Only take what you absolutely need: a pencil, a laptop, a scanner (a FlipPal may or may not be allowed, depending on who conducts the authorization process), a camera, and a flash drive. You might also need pocketfuls of change or you can put credits on your research card at the cashier. I'm not really sure how this works, because we never made it that far. In any case, the less you can carry in, the better.
I have to admit, when we arrived we were greeted by what may be the kindest, most helpful security force I've ever met. They made the unpleasant security procedures bearable. They pointed us in the direction of a decent place to get breakfast, and suggested that we go ahead and check in early to avoid the crowd when we returned. We spent roughly 3-4 hours in there, spending 99% of that time at the public computer terminals and information desk. The young lady at the information desk was also VERY helpful (even if she was constantly telling me that they didn't have those records at that facility ... more on that later). One of the female security officers on duty as we were leaving must not have gotten the memo about how helpful they were supposed to be, and she actually shoved me as I tried to go around her to return my visitor badge. (Don't worry ... I didn't fight back and I didn't press charges. Are you kidding? I would still be doing paperwork!)
Lessons learned: Travel light. Figure out exactly what records you need and make sure they are at the facility you are visiting - it's not always clear on the website which facility houses your records. (For example, civil war military records are kept in DC, but the confederate civil war pension files are kept in the individual states; union pension records are housed in the Maryland facility). Even though I didn't find any new information, it was still a great learning experience. Next time, I'll be more prepared (but honestly, I'll probably just request records by mail and spend more time sightseeing when I visit my mom!)
I gave up on the Archives for Friday and went sightseeing all the way from Arlington Cemetery to the Library of Congress. I'll post on that separately.