National Archives II: new look, old duties

May 11, 1994|By Michael A. Fletcher | Michael A. Fletcher,Sun Staff Writer

COLLEGE PARK -- The National Archives building is all high-tech gadgetry, glass and concrete, a far cry from the agency's first home, a grand neoclassical building halfway between the Capitol and the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue.

The new, 1.7 million-square-foot building sits on a park-like, 33-acre tract next to the University of Maryland's golf course. Its windows look out on groves of trees and its research rooms are brightened by light that passes through tinted glass in the main atrium.

It's a stark contrast to the Washington building, with its 72 limestone columns, bronze doors and knots of researchers huddled in windowless rooms.

While the National Archives' new building strikes a contemporary theme, its mission is traditional: to house and preserve the federal government's significant historical documents, recorded on everything from parchment to computer discs.

In the Washington area, those documents included 4 billion pieces of paper, 7 million still pictures, 112,274 reels of motion pictures, 200,122 sound and video recordings, 9 million aerial photographs, 2.2 million architectural and engineering plans and 172,047 maps and charts.

The collection includes photographs of Dust Bowl farmers, slides of old government posters warning of the horrors of diphtheria, miles of film reels of the Great Depression -- and almost anything else one can imagine that has a connection to the federal government.

"This is not a library," said Rick Blondo, a consultant archivist who leads tours of the new building. "This is original material that puts people in direct contact with history."

While many documents are moving to the new building, the nation's most famous historical treasures, including the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Emancipation Proclamation, will remain at the 60-year-old building in downtown Washington.

But other popular attractions will be available to both researchers and curiousity seekers at the new six-story, $290 million facility.

Among them are the materials of former President Richard M. Nixon, including the Watergate tapes that helped drive him from office. Another collection includes materials, some from the FBI and CIA, related to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

"The records we have here give evidence of both our noble and ignoble doings as a nation," Mr. Blondo said.

While Archives II, as it has been dubbed, will being dedicated tomorrow with a ceremony featuring prominent archivists and politicians, it began servicing researchers in January, when the Nixon collection was made available.

Since then, more materials have been trucked to the building from the downtown location and a records storage facility in Suitland. It will take three years to move 766,000 cubic feet of records -- more than 1,100 truck loads -- to the new building.

In all, Archives II has 2 million cubic feet of storage space and 520 miles of shelving -- enough room to accommodate the government's archival needs until the year 2007, the agency says.

Much of that material is kept in rooms with special air and light filters to protect documents from ultraviolet rays and airborne contaminants. Much of the storage space consists of movable, computerized shelving. There are spacious laboratories where researchers will restore and protect historical documents and a 332-seat auditorium for films and lectures.

So far, about 100 researchers a day have been trickling into Archives II. There have been requests from television film crews for old war footage, information on African-American congressmen from North Carolina who served during Reconstruction, documents related to the American occupation of Japan and government footage of the D-Day invasion.

There was also a request from two women researching toilets of the world.

"We were able to find them some photographs of some Depression-era outhouses," Mr. Blondo said. "They actually apologized when they asked. But they were very pleased when we were able to find them some materials."

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