The Public Vaults

Journey inside the amazing world of records.

students exploring the Public Vaults

Inside The Public Vaults

In the Public Vaults, the permanent exhibit in the National Archives Experience, you can experience the feeling of going beyond the walls of the Rotunda into the stacks and vaults of the National Archives. Here you will encounter fascinating original records (including Abraham Lincoln's telegrams to his generals, audio recordings from the Oval Office) and new interactive exhibits that allow you to "touch" and explore some of the most interesting documents, photos and films we hold.

The Public Vaults display at any given time about 1,100 records-originals or facsimiles of documents, photographs, maps, drawings, film or audio clips, allowing you to see the raw materials of our American democracy. Documents range from important treaties and legislation dealing with grave matters of state to snippets of the fascinating stories of individual citizens such as letters to the President and citations for military bravery.

Learn More About the Public Vaults

You begin your tour of the Public Vaults in the Record of America. This central pathway connects our Public Vaults and takes you on a journey through time and the changing technology of records.

From George Washington's handwritten letters to Abraham Lincoln’s wartime telegrams, most of the textual records in the Record of America are originals and will change from year to year. Don't miss the 1823 Copper Plate of the Declaration of Independence or the facsimile of the Emancipation Proclamation, both of which are on permanent display.

Branching off of this pathway are five "vaults." In addition to more great original records, the vaults feature new electronic tools that will allow you to explore fragments of our past in astonishing detail.

Each of the Public Vaults draws its themes from words in the Preamble to the Constitution:

  • We the People – records of family and citizenship;
  • To Form a More Perfect Union – records of liberty and law;
  • Provide for the Common Defense – records of war and diplomacy;
  • Promote the General Welfare – records of frontiers and firsts; and
  • To Ourselves and Our Posterity – keeping records for future

We the People

"We the People" focuses on family and the rights of citizenship. Here, you'll learn that the National Archives has records about not only important and famous people but also ordinary Americans. In this vault, you might help someone establish U.S. citizenship or learn how to research your own family history though documents such as immigration records, naturalization papers, census schedules, draft cards, and homestead applications. You'll also explore records about Native Americans, early settlers from Europe, people who instantly became Americans when their region was annexed, and the story of freed slaves during Reconstruction.

To Form a More Perfect Union

"To Form a More Perfect Union" highlights records of liberty and law that illustrate the evolution of our democracy and how records have been used to hold Government officials accountable for their actions. In this vault, you can hear congressional debates on Prohibition in 1918 and reinstating the draft in 1940. You can also see materials and evidence preserved from famous investigations, such as those on Unidentified Flying Objects, the Kennedy assassination, the Kent State shootings, and Watergate.

Promote the General Welfare

"Promote the General Welfare" emphasizes records of firsts and frontiers and shows how the human spirit and ingenuity helped to realize many of the promises of America as envisioned by our Founders. An exhibit called "20 July 1969" transports you back to the day man first landed on the moon. You'll also be invited to identify original patent drawings for such things as the typewriter, the pencil, and the phonograph.

Provide for the Common Defense

"Provide for the Common Defense" is about wars and diplomacy. Records from the Revolutionary War through the Persian Gulf War paint a vivid picture of heroism, inspiration, and sacrifice over the decades. You can explore the Civil War records of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, an African American unit, and compare the records to the unit's portrayal in the 1989 movie Glory. Or you can listen to parts of the actual conversations that took place in the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

To Ourselves and Our Posterity

"To Ourselves and Our Posterity" focuses on the National Archives' role in keeping our records for future generations. Here, you can see how a Government document becomes a record at NARA and learn how to care for your own family records. Here, you can learn that if you want to do research at NARA, you don't have to come to Washington because NARA is all across America, with 21 regional records service facilities, 12 Presidential libraries, and the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis. And here, you can learn of the challenges NARA as an agency and we as a society face in preserving the electronic records of our Government.

Records Matter

Entering the Public Vaults is a journey of discovery. We want you to gain an understanding of your personal connection to the records in the National Archives. We want families to see how their own stories fit into our national mosaic and young people to be thrilled by the real-life drama of the American experience. And we want people of all ages to take action and use the Archives – to learn, to unravel, to discover, and to celebrate the stories of individuals, of families, of communities, and of our nation.

Visiting the Public Vaults