With the growing size of digital collections now available, an online catalog is simply no longer just a research tool. They are now online databases where you can do original research. I have used numerous online images from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) catalog in past Legacy News posts as examples of documents that may include an ancestor. There are over four million images and digital objects in NARA’s catalog, a number that grows frequently, so it’s certainly worthwhile to at least check this site when researching. There’s great potential to find a lot of gems.
Before digging, I’d like to help you navigate NARA’s catalog and provide some tips on how to make the most of it. The NARA homepage presents users with the main search engine where you can start with a few keywords, such as a topic or even someone’s name.
Each time you click on a catalog entry in your search, you are presented with a page that has important descriptive information. The catalog is a research tool because you should consult this before doing in-person research to find relevant sources and create a research plan. Each catalog entry has:
- Record Group information
- ID number for that entry
- Microfilm publication number if the collection has been microfilmed
- The branch of NARA that has custody of the archived record and it’s contact information
Remember that names will only appear in the catalog if they are included in the title or description. General keyword searches can present users with an overwhelming number of results, so using the refining tools allows us to focus on relevant entries.
All the refining tools are on the left side of the page. Limiting to only digital objects and images can be done on the top left under “Refine By: Data” and clicking “Archival Descriptions with Digital Objects.” To the right of these filters are additional filters where you can restrict results to only Images, Documents, Web Pages, and more. If a user is looking for records in a particular branch of NARA, this can be accomplished by clicking one of the locations under “Refine By: Location.” The advanced search, which is located to the right of the search bar offers even more refining tools. People who are acquainted with the division and hierarchy of record groups at NARA might want to try limiting results to a particular RG number. Users can also search for "tags" put on documents by other users. NARA's catalog offers crowdsourcing capabilities where users can tag and transcribe documents in the catalog. Any user can make a free account to do this as well as save their searches and specific entries. 
Military records from the Revolutionary War to the late 20th century are available on NARA’s catalog. A favorite of genealogists would have to be the illustrated family records or frakturs from the Revolutionary War pension applications. There’s a little over 100 of these that were submitted as documentation for claimants and their families. Virginia patriot Dawson Cooke’s claim for service includes pages from the family bible of John Newcomb. The Newcombs were friends and associates of Dawson Cooke and his first wife Mildred. It includes four pages of genealogical information of not just the Newcomb and his descendants, but also a memorandum of the births of other families, who happened to be the Newcomb's family property.
There are also thousands of other records from NARA’s military series including:
- Compiled service record cards
- World War I & II Casualty Lists, i.e. State Summary of War Casualties (Navy, Marine Corps, & Coast Guard) and World War II Honor List of Dead and Missing Army Air Forces Personnel
- Muster rolls
- Unit records
Many of the documents are digitized because they were deemed historically significant and some of them invoke painful times in our history. Among the digitized records of the Boston Navy Yard is a 150 page file on casualties in the Coconut Grove fire of 1942 that killed 495 people, including 35 personnel of the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard.
Among the number of other types of digitized records include:
- Court cases
- Indian census rolls
- Maritime logbooks and personnel documents
- Lists of patients at government hospitals
- ….and so much more.
There are some microfilm publications, in addition to the World War II casualty lists, like NARA M862, Numerical and Minor Files Of The Department of State, 1906-1910, which include all the records made and kept by United States diplomats and consuls for that time period.
More than 99% of over four million images reproduced in The National Archives and Records Administration’s online catalog are “government works” and therefore, in the public domain. You can easily download a series of documents for free by clicking the .pdf link or one at a time in .jpg format. I think it’s easier to view the images after downloading them. There are a few which have copyright restrictions, mostly because the copyright title belongs to someone outside of the National Archives. You can scroll past the image to view details and it will note any access restrictions. The restrictions are not only pertaining to copyright, but also accessibility of the originals to the public. Even if there is a document or photo that doesn’t directly include an ancestor, it’s nice to know that genealogists can use them freely to assist in telling the stories of their ancestor or to educate others.
Remember that the NARA catalog isn’t the first or only place you want to stop and try this. Look for all the possible archival repositories in the area of your research and look to see what they have online for special collections. You never know how it might pertain to your family history.
 For more information, see National Archives and Records Administration, "Using The Catalog," (https://www.archives.gov/research/catalog/help/using.html: accessed 16 Dec 2016).
 See 17 U.S.C. § 105 (https://www.copyright.gov/title17/92chap1.html#105: accessed 16 Dec 2016). See also “Copyright” under “National Archives Frequently Asked Questions” (https://www.archives.gov/faqs: accessed 16 Dec 2016).
Jake Fletcher is a genealogist, lecturer, and blogger. He currently serves as Vice President of the New England Association of Professional Genealogists (NEAPG).