Near the bottom of the post, Randy Seaver offers his opinion regarding free access to these records, and the agreements between the NARA and various commercial sites. In this context, he stated,
I think that NARA will eventually host the census on its own site, with one of the name indexes available from some provider for use in a NARA facility. That's the type of agreement they made with Ancestry.com, Footnote.com, FamilySearch.org, etc. to permit indexing of other NARA databases they are free to access in a NARA facility.
It was this mention that made me realize that I may not be taking full advantage of the NARA's free resources. A quick check of the NARA's site turned up Resources for Genealogists and Family Historians, which provides a wealth of online resources.
While on the NARA site, I also learned that my belief that I'd have to go to Washington, DC to access these records may have been incorrect, since they have a number of regional sites around the country; not all of these sites offer the same resources, so if you are planning a visit to one of the regional centers, make sure the records you need are available there.
I live in Tucson, so the nearest NARA site for me is the National Archives at Riverside, CA (Pacific Region), approximately 440 miles from my home. The NARA reports:
We hold historically valuable materials created and collected by Federal agencies and courts in Arizona, southern California, and Clark County, Nevada. These records constitute a major resource for the study of Native American history, Naval history, westward migration, Asian immigration, civil rights, and other subjects.Since most of my recent ancestors are from the eastern half of the US (my dad was born in Florida, and my mom in Ohio), this doesn't help me much. However, my husband does have some ancestors who lived in these areas. So, if I plan a trip to this location, I'll be focusing on my husband's family.
Like my parents, my dad's parents are from distinctly different regions. For my dad's mother's line (Herrington), the National Archives at Atlanta will be most useful, as most of her close ancestors were from the South. My dad's father was born in Pennsylvania, so to follow his line, I'll have to head north to the NARA's Mid Atlantic Region (Center City Philadelphia), where records for Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia are maintained. My mother's father (Rote) was also born in Pennsylvania, so while I'm there I can try to track down more information about him. Her mother (Craun), however, was born in Indiana, so to track down this branch, I'll have to head over to the Regional Archives for NARA's Great Lakes Region, which are housed in Chicago, Illinois.** Great! Although I was born in Chicago, my parents left when I was a baby and I've wanted to visit for as long as I can remember.
* RFQ = Request for quote; SOW = Statement of Work
** Lines referenced: LLOYD, HERRINGTON, ROTE, CRAUN