The National Archives

Contributor: Meghan Vestal. Lesson ID: 11855

Do you have to rummage around to find your homework or other important papers? Imagine searching through BILLIONS of papers, some hundreds of years old! The National Archives does just that every day!


United States

learning style
personality style
Grade Level
Intermediate (3-5), Middle School (6-8)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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  • Does your home have a filing cabinet or boxes or bookshelves where important papers are stored?
  • What if you had billions of papers, pictures, videos, maps, recordings, and films to store?
  • Where are the United States' most important documents stored?
  • What is the nation's official attic?

You have been on an exciting, virtual adventure, exploring some of the famous places in Washington, D.C.

What are some of your favorite places you have visited during this series? Explain your response to your teacher or parent.

If you missed or wish to review any of the previous lessons in this fascinating Let's Explore Washington, D.C.!, series, find them in the right-hand sidebar under Related Lessons.

In this lesson, you will make your final stop on your tour of Washington, D.C.: The National Archives. The National Archives is home to America's most important documents, including the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

As you read the following information about the National Archives, consider the following questions:

  • Why is it important to house all of the United States' most important documents in one location?
  • What features does the National Archives have that makes it capable of storing important, historical documents?
  • What characteristics make a document worthy of being stored in the National Archives?
  • What challenges does the National Archives face in the modern world?

Can you believe that at one time some of the most important documents in American history were sitting in basements and attics across the country?

Read Just Stick It in the Basement: Before the Archives, by Benjamin Shaw for Boundary Stones, to learn how some of America's founding documents were initially stored.

Some people, such as Thomas Jefferson, recognized this problem early on. Jefferson is quoted as saying, "Time and accident are committing daily havoc on the originals deposited in our public offices."

  • What do you think Thomas Jefferson meant when he said time and accident are destroying the original copies of important documents?

Despite Jefferson's warnings, nothing was done to gather and preserve the United States' most important documents until the 1920s.

In 1926, Congress approved the Public Buildings Act, a large-scale building project that planned to create more federal buildings in Washington, D.C. Part of this plan included constructing the first building in the United States to house federal records and documents.

The National Archives building was one of the most difficult buildings to construct as part of the Public Buildings Act. Architects struggled to come up with a design that was more than just offices.

A building was needed with unique elements, such as flood and fire resistance, that would protect and prolong the life of many important documents. The building also required thousands of feet of shelving to hold documents, and a unique air system that would not deteriorate paper.

Difficulty developing a design delayed construction on the building until 1931.

The National Archives officially opened in 1935. While the location in Washington, D.C., remains the primary home of the National Archives, there are now more than 40 National Archives buildings scattered across the United States.

The National Archives works to protect, preserve, and restore documents that are considered to have lasting value, which accounts for about 2% to 5% of federal documents created annually.

The National Archives also has the challenge of keeping up with current technology. Since work is largely done on computers, and fewer paper copies are being kept, the National Archives has been tasked with developing a unique federal documents database for organizing and maintaining current records.

The National Archives is an exciting place to visit because it enables visitors to stand within inches of the documents that founded the United States.

Move on to the Got It? section to take a virtual tour of this famous site.

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