Select Page

Finding aids for NARA microfilm

It happens so often that these days it just makes The Legal Genealogist smile… ruefully, most times.

You mention something in a blog post, like a Descriptive Pamphlet for a microfilm publication of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA, for short), and you can pretty well count on a reader wanting to know more: what’s that, and where do you find it?

And in this case, as in most, when I quoted the Descriptive Pamphlet for NARA Microfilm Publication M2156, Lists of Federal Prisoners of War Who Enlisted in the Confederate Army, in last Thursday’s blog,1 I should have thought to explain what that was… and where to find it.2

Because the Descriptive Pamphlets that go along with NARA microfilm can be pure gold all by themselves.

First, what’s a Descriptive Pamphlet?

A Descriptive Pamphlet is a finding aid that explains and helps us use specific records that NARA holds. You’ll find one with most of NARA’s microfilm publications, and it’ll give you “details on the collection that has been microfilmed (including the record group and series), background information relevant to how and why the records were created, specifics on how the records are arranged, and other details such as editorial conventions, related records, relevant publications, and more.”3

For example, that Descriptive Pamphlet I mentioned last week for M2156, Lists of Federal Prisoners of War Who Enlisted in the Confederate Army, explained how and when the microfilm publication was created, what’s included in the microfilm, and sets out the detailed list of its contents. And the “and more” it contains: in a section entitled Background, it gives an overview of how, in 1864, the Confederate government authorized an officer to raise a battalion of infantry of prisoners held by the Confederacy, identifies the units raised and gives a brief description of their service.4

Sometimes there’s even more to be found: in the Descriptive Pamphlet for M237, Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York 1820-97, for example, you get a history of the laws under which the records were created, where you might find a record if it’s not in this microfilm, and suggestions about related records and where you might find those.5 And of course sometimes there’s not much: the Descriptive Pamphlet for T9, Tenth Census of the United States, 1880, just lists what’s on each roll — there’s no other description in what’s online.6

So, where do you find this?

Fortunately, we can get to most, if not all, of these online, at NARA’s website itself and even at FamilySearch.

On NARA’s website, since most of us get to it from a search engine or a bookmark to the homepage,, the place to start is to click on the first box on the left, the link for Research Our Records, and it’ll take you to the Research Our Records landing page.

What you want when you get there is the link at the top under Other Online Research Tools for the NARA Microfilm Catalog:

Research Records page

Click on that link and you hit the microfilm page:

Microfilm page

That’s where you can use the search box and plug in the publication number, if you know it, or search by keyword or topic or location. And you can just browse through all the microfilm publications using the browse function. So if we search, as I did, for M2156, we’d enter that in the search box, click on the search button and this would be the result:

Search results

Here it’s just one roll of microfilm. If your search had more results, you could order them by publication number, title, record group and more to find the one you want. When you find that one, click on the title — it’s a hotlink — and it takes you to a page like this:

Link to Pamphlet

And there on the right is what you want: that PDF (or, actually, in this case a Word file) is the Descriptive Pamphlet — and it’s free and downloadable. You can (and I do) have a personal collection of Descriptive Pamphlets that you refer to most often.

Now over at FamilySearch, you want to use the Catalog search and look for them by author or keyword or both. I did a quick search, for example, using “United States” in the author field and “pamphlet” in the keyword field and came up with hundreds of examples. Even limiting the search to items available online (already digitized), there were dozens and dozens of hits — 97 just for the Adjutant General’s Office, 11 for the Department of State, 15 for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and so much more.

These are great resources, and the NARA records they explain are pure gold.

Have fun finding what you need for your research…


  1. Judy G. Russell, “And following up…,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 19 Apr 2018 ( : accessed 23 Apr 2018).
  2. And a special tip of the hat to Rebecca Whitman Koford, one of several who said it needed a blog post — and sent along some information to help.
  3. Melissa A. Johnson, “Navigating the National Archives,” NGS Monthly, posted 14 Dec 2015 ( : accessed 23 Apr 2018) (note: accessible to NGS members only).
  4. Claire Prechtel-Kluskens, compiler, Descriptive Pamphlet, M2156, Lists of Federal Prisoners of War Who Enlisted in the Confederate Army, 1862-1865, PDF (Washington DC: National Archives and Records Administration, 2012).
  5. National Archives, Pamphlet Accompanying Microcopy No. 237, Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York 1820-97, PDF (Washington DC: National Archives and Records Service, 1962).
  6. National Archives, Descriptive Pamphlet, T9, Tenth Census of the United States, 1880, PDF (Washington DC: NARA, n.d.).
Print Friendly, PDF & Email