Mining America's memory Archives: Described as 'the best library you've ever been in,' the National Archives draws thousands of people every year looking for something or someone.

September 07, 1997|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

Ninth-graders in Steve Findeisen's social studies class are learning how their families got to America by reading the scratches of a bureaucrat's fountain pen, the pleas of frightened union workers and the rhetoric of a Maryland politician.

Findeisen, a teacher at Francis Scott Key High School near Westminster, has thrown away the book and turned to documents stored at the National Archives to bring his students' ancestors to life.

"It's the best library you've ever been in, only better," he says. "You touch the documents and you know you've made contact with a real event, right down to the misspellings, the cross-outs, right down to the coffee cup stain."

The Smithsonian Institution is "America's Attic;" the archives is its memory.

Findeisen, 32, is one of the thousands of people who come each year to the original archives in Washington and the annex -- Archives II, which opened in College Park in 1994 -- to look for someone or something.

There are veterans doing histories of their military outfits. Amateur genealogists scouring passenger manifests for clues to how their families came to America. Others wanting to hear Richard M. Nixon's "smoking gun" Watergate tape.

"They let you touch everything," marvels Findeisen. "You can handle documents Jefferson wrote and see the notes he scribbled in the margins of the record of the first Congress. You see the guy has terrible penmanship, but what wonderful things he wrote."

Billions of pages

Findeisen and colleague John Bougher, took a two-week course this summer at the archives, a survival guide for people researching a topic using the billions of pages of documents, 13 million maps and charts, 8 million photographs (including glass negatives shot by Civil War photographer Matthew Brady), 118,000 reels of movies and 200,000 audio and video recordings.

The archives keeps less than 5 percent of the federal records generated each year. Still, it has a combined 2.8 million cubic feet of storage space at the Washington and College Park buildings, plus a dozen regional facilities, to preserve them. It also manages the nine presidential libraries.

"It's not easy," says Findeisen. "This doesn't work like any other library. You have to think like the federal government, and to start you have to know which agency might have generated the record."

For example, the arrest report on Rosa Parks in 1955, when she refused to surrender her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus, is kept in Justice Department records. A rare photo of Ted Williams is in the Treasury Department files because the baseball Hall of Famer was promoting U.S. savings bonds. And an immigrant's name might first appear on a ship's log stored by the Customs Service or on Army enlistment rolls.

The records not in the regional facilities are divided between Washington and College Park -- some by agency, some by time && period -- and researchers can take a free shuttle bus back and forth.

The rules are a little stiffer at the archives than at the local public library. Researchers must register and place their belongings in basement lockers. Wallets and coin purses may be carried upstairs; purses, backpacks and briefcases are prohibited. Sweaters or light jackets may be worn, but not carried. Notes must be taken in pencil on paper supplied by the archives, but, in a bow to modern technology, laptop computers may be used. And chewing gum is out.

Findeisen found that a request for a document often resulted in an outpouring of carts and boxes of records -- everything that particular government agency stored during a certain time period.

"The most important and most mundane are on the same shelf, just the way the government filed it," says Findeisen.

Findeisen's search was aimed at crafting a lesson for his students that would not only teach U.S. immigration policy, but also force them to confront their own feelings on race and ethnicity.

He found handwritten records of bureaucrats who logged in the name of each immigrant (often Americanized on the spot) and occupation (recorded to gauge the new labor pool).

He found petitions from Baltimore union workers and residents begging Congress to stop the flood of cheap labor. He obtained a copy of the immigration bill of 1902, which called for prohibiting "anarchists, idiots, the insane, paupers and habitual drunkards" (the bill failed) and the law that passed nine years later over the veto of President Woodrow Wilson.

Then there's the 1911 letter from Maryland Gov. Austin Crothers to the U.S. commissioner of immigration: "I am convinced that the greatest need of the South to-day is more people of the right sort."

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