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Monument, museum, and the nation's memory, the National Archives, headquartered in a grand marble edifice on Constitution Avenue, preserves more than 12 billion paper records dating back to 1774 and billions of recent electronic records. The National Archives and Records Administration is charged with preserving and archiving the most historically important U.S. government records at its records centers nationwide and in presidential libraries.
Charters of Freedom—the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights—are the star attractions. They are housed in the Archives' cathedral-like rotunda, each on a marble platform, encased in bulletproof glass.
On display at the entrance to the David M. Rubenstein Gallery is a 1297 Magna Carta, the document of English common law whose language inspired the Constitution. One of four remaining originals, the Magna Carta sets the stage for the Records of Rights exhibit in this interactive gallery that
traces the civil rights struggles of African Americans, women, and immigrants. Highlights include the discharge papers of a slave who fought in the Revolutionary War to gain his freedom; the mark-up copy of the 1964 Civil Rights Act; and letters to the president from children who questioned segregation.
The Public Vaults go deep into the stacks. You can find records that give a glimpse into Federal investigations, from the Lincoln assassination to Watergate.
Watch films of flying saucers, used as evidence in congressional UFO hearings, listen to the Nuremberg trials or Congress debating Prohibition.
Reservations to visit the Archives are highly recommended. Reservations for guided tours, or for timed visit entries, should be made at least six weeks in advance. March, April, May, and the weekends around Thanksgiving and Christmas are the busiest. Expect to spend two hours here.
The archives research entrance on Pennsylvania Avenue is open to anyone 14 years or older. Younger researchers should request permission in advance. Family genealogists can find birth, death, military, and census records, immigrant ships' passenger lists, letters, and maps since the beginning of the nation's history. Archivists can help you track down ancestors' records or anything else you're looking for.
Orhan Cam / Shutterstock