The NARA Film Transfer Process

Author: Henninger Media Services | | Categories: Film Scanning , NARA

The NARA Film Transfer Process

How to find what you want and get the transfers you need

You’re working on a documentary and you realize that a piece of footage that will help tell your story might be available through the National Archives. How can you get a digital copy of it? Henninger Media Services has been transferring film for the National Archives for over 25 years. While we typically enter the picture once you’ve found the materials you need and have an approved Item Approval Request List (IARL), we hope to make the whole process a little more transparent, from start to finish.

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) oversees a vast collection of records including historical documents, photographs, films, videotapes and audio recordings. There are many research projects that might bring one to NARA, but we’ll focus on film, video and sound recordings since those are our area of expertise.

The Moving Image and Sound Branch holdings at the National Archives in College Park are quite large, and include:

  • 520,400 Film Reels
  • 312,066 Sound Recordings
  • 170,925 Video Recordings

First, you’ll need to find item-level citations to order reproductions of any kind from the Archives. The NARA website contains a great deal of information about ordering items from the Moving Image and Sound Branch and we highly recommend reviewing their site thoroughly. Essentially, you’ll need to find the following information about the item you wish to copy:

  • Record group number, with or without an alphabetical series designator
  • Item control number, also known as the Local Identifier
  • Item title or subject
  • Individual reel number (for items which consist of more than one reel or tape)

Citations can often be found in the National Archives Catalog. Unfortunately, the National Archives Catalog does not cover all Moving Image and Sound Branch holdings. Additionally, item descriptions may not reach the individual reel level. For items not described in the National Archives Catalog, citations can be obtained through on-site work in the Moving Image and Sound Research Room or by hiring an independent researcher. An independent researcher can be indispensable if you’re unable to visit the Archives yourself, or if you’d prefer to work with someone with extensive knowledge of the Archives.

Assuming you’ve found what you need and have the necessary information, it’s time to prepare an Item Approval Request Form. As the NARA website indicates, you can do this in one of two ways. You can email the Motion Picture, Sound and Video staff or you can save a form from the website, fill it out and return it to them via email.

Currently, NARA is accepting one Item Approval Request Form per week, per researcher or production group. Each approval request is not to exceed 12 reels. These guidelines were put in place as the Archives re-opened during the COVID-19 pandemic and are subject to change. Check the NARA website for updates.

Once you’ve submitted your IARL at and it has been approved, you will need to choose a NARA-approved vendor to transfer the material and send that vendor the IARL. We hope you choose us! Once we have your IARL, we will provide a quote for the project. Then, we’ll arrange for a loan of the materials from the Archives and will make copies according to your specifications. Your order can take up to four to six weeks from start to finish depending on the size of your order but typically we turn around most orders within 7 days.

After you receive your materials, check them for content, accuracy and completeness. Returns will be honored for 30 days in the event of an error by NARA or the preferred vendor. Lastly, don’t forget to credit NARA if you’re using the material in a film, broadcast documentary or online presentation. The credit should read: Courtesy: National Archives and Records Administration.

Here is a quick recap of each step:

  1. Identify item-level citations
  2. Complete and submit an Item Approval Request List (IARL)
  3. NARA will review and approve the IARL and process approved orders
  4. Choose a NARA preferred vendor to complete your order (choose us!) and send them your IARL
  5. Your vendor will provide a quote for the transfer work
  6. Once the quote is approved, the materials will be loaned from NARA to the preferred vendor and your transfers will be made
  7. Review your materials and credit NARA if appropriate

We hope you find exactly what you’re looking for at NARA and choose us as your preferred vendor!