Every family understands the importance of keeping records. We may stuff papers in drawers or create files with notes, but we value the photographs, birth certificates, scrapbooks and other accounts that document our lives and tell our stories.

Nine Billion!

The United States government has also kept records since its very beginning. Agreements, declarations, letters, canceled checks, photographs, film, audio and video recordings and digital files are among the nine billion holdings in its care. Before 1934, individual government agencies kept their own records. Because some agencies did a better job than others, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) was established in 1934 to ensure that future generations would be able to view important information. NARA ensures “ready access to essential evidence that documents the rights of American citizens, the actions of Federal officials and the national experience from its earliest days.” Simply put, the Archives holds the stories of our country and its people.

Managing billions of records takes space. Besides its main building in Washington, D.C., NARA also includes 13 presidential libraries, 22 regional facilities and other centers around the country. As Washington-area residents, we have easy access to the headquarters, a grand neoclassical building located between the White House and the Capitol. Designed by architect John Russell Pope (1881-1936) as a temple to history, the building projects the significance of the records held there. Massive columns rise above high steps. Inside, national treasures await.

Prepare For Your Visit

Children who have had some exposure to American history will get the most out of the National Archives Experience, but even younger ones can enjoy the visit. Lee Ann Potter, director of Education and Volunteer Programs at the Center for the National Archives Experience, recommends that parents prepare at home to build anticipation. An 11-minute introductory film, Democracy Starts Here, available both online and onsite in the McGowan Theater, is a sophisticated and informative overview of what the Archives holds. “See the space through your children’s eyes and let them lead the charge!” Potter suggests. (http://videocast.nih.gov/sla/NARA/dsh/broadband.html)

The Charters of Freedom

For many visitors—over a million every year— the main attractions are the Charters of Freedom: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

These documents represent the essence of our country and are solemnly displayed in the Rotunda. The large domed ceiling rises 70 feet above the floor. Dim lighting aids preservation and creates a sense of reverence. Visitors walk up steps and through 40-foot-tall bronze doors, as if ascending to an altar or tabernacle. Panels of information precede each Charter of Freedom and provide interesting background about the people involved in creating the documents. On the walls above are formal oil-on-canvas murals, painted by artist Barry Faulkner, depicting the Founding Fathers.

The Declaration of Independence is the first Charter of Freedom displayed as you move chronologically from left to right. Written in 1776, it articulated the ideas on which the nation was founded and justified the need to separate from Great Britain. The writing has faded on the document that established the United States of America, but the thrilling words on thick parchment can still be read: “When in the Course of human events …”

The Constitution, 1787, is prominently housed in the center of the Rotunda, flanked by two American flags. This original document defined the framework for a new form of government and still guides our nation’s laws.  Considered one of the most influential documents of all time, more than 100 countries have used it as a model. An annotated draft of the Constitution with George Washington’s notes gives visitors a hint of the human efforts behind the creation of a new government.

The Bill of Rights, 1789, is the final Charter of Freedom document. It was added to the Constitution as the first 10 amendments and defined citizen and states’ rights. Individual signatures of representatives from the newly established states connect the business of governing to real people and places. Side displays lend a broader picture of the many participants in the founding efforts, including an exhibit about the role of women and slaves in the Revolution. Additional information offers fascinating details about parchment and the writing instruments of the time. (The quill pens used for signing the documents came from geese and were taken from the left or right wing, according to which hand the signer used. Thomas Jefferson raised geese specifically for his prolific writing needs.)

Beyond the Charters

The Public Vaults and the Boeing Learning Center

The Public Vaults provide a permanent interactive exhibit that helps visitors experience going into the stacks and vaults of the Archives. The Vaults are organized around the words of the Preamble to the Constitution. We the People displays records of family and rights of citizenship; To Form a More Perfect Union exhibits records of liberty and law; Provide for the Common Defense shows records of war and diplomacy; Promote the General Welfare presents records of frontiers and firsts; To Ourselves and Our Posterity explores record keeping for the future. One display even offers suggestions for ways to manage and preserve your own important family documents and photographs.

History is in the Details

You can also see Abraham Lincoln’s telegrams to his generals, edit your own documentary about the D-Day invasion or match wits with Patent Puzzlers. You can call up files that show Davy Crockett’s Congressional credentials (he served one term in the House) or an image of President Gerald Ford’s University of Michigan leather football helmet from his student days playing for the Wolverines. You can even eavesdrop on President John Kennedy discussing the Cuban Missile Crisis. Many documents once classified are now available to the public.

Families Welcome

The Boeing Learning Center, made possible through a private-public partnership, provides a wonderful enhancement to the other exhibit areas. Every document on display in the Archives is available in notebook form there. Arranged chronologically for easy reference, the information has been correlated to the National Standards of Learning for History. It’s a great resource for both students and history buffs. Activities for every age group are provided, making it an ideal stop for the entire family. Children can color a reproduction of the Rotunda mural, trace the signatures of the Founding Fathers or put their own mark on a copy of the Declaration of Independence to take home. Archival adventures challenge kids to solve mysteries using facsimiles of real documents and advanced thinking skills that draw upon existing knowledge, like geography. There are even family trees for all kinds of families that will help children see history in a very personal way.

Take advantage of your local status and visit the Archives before the height of the spring-summer tourist season. Plan to spend at least two hours or more. Just make sure you leave plenty of time after the main exhibits for the superb offerings of the Learning Center. Children will have the opportunity to take the formal information they have seen and enjoy it in a very personal way. If they look carefully, they might even find part of their own family history, and see how they are an important part of the American story, too.

The National Archives Experience

The National Archives Experience consists of the exhibition, education and public program spaces of the National Archives.

The William G. McGowan Theater provides an elegant auditorium for an introductory film about the Archives and space for special lectures and public programs related to the holdings of the Archives.

The Charters of Freedom in the Rotunda consist of the Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bill of Rights, along with background and supplementary materials.

The Public Vaults provide interactive exhibits that let visitors explore some of the documents, photographs and films in the Archives collection.

The Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery showcases a changing selection of materials from the Archives with a topic or theme.

The Boeing Learning Center provides a family-friendly space and a way to see copies of any of the documents featured in the exhibits, and participate in activities for all ages that can personalize the Archives experience.

Location: Constitution Avenue, between 7th and 9th streets, NW

Metro: Archives-Navy Memorial-Penn Quarter

Hours: 10 a.m. - 5:30 p.m. (until 7:30 p.m. from March 15-Labor Day)

Closed Thanksgiving Day and December 25

It is possible to make advance reservations for guided tours and timed entries for a small charge. (Recommended during holiday weeks and peak tourist season.)


You will need to go through security screening, so travel lightly!

On-site café hours: Monday-Friday, 10 a.m. - 4 p.m.

Barbara Carney is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.