Tales of the Country

How Tokyo Rose, "Machine Gun" Kelly, and Amelia Earhart are endangered by money-saving moves at the National Archives in San Bruno

The federal government estimates that records in storage will exceed current capacity by 2007. The space situation is complicated by a federal mandate to reduce the size of all government agencies. So NARA has begun looking at consolidation.

Under an as-yet-unfinished plan, microfilm rooms would remain at the San Bruno facility, where people could view copies of census and other records. Microfilm, however, is a controversy all its own. It would take 40 people about 100 years to microfilm everything that is currently in the NARA center in San Bruno. So some level of selection is required. Adding to the controversy: Historians, scholars, and genealogists are quick to point out that no one has yet figured out how long microfilm lasts without deteriorating.

NARA officials are set to decide on a space plan, including which regional centers are to be closed, early next year.

The entire budget of the National Archives and Records Administration is little more than $250 million, about one-tenth of 1 percent of the defense budget. The Pacific Sierra Region of NARA runs on about $1 million a year. The San Bruno archives receive more visits -- 15,800 -- and its staff pulls more records in a given year than any other regional archive center in the country, in part because the Chinese Exclusion Act records are so popular. Staffers make 100,000 photocopies a year (that number doesn't include copies people make themselves). It is the Nordstrom of government agencies. The staff here exists to connect people to records. They devote hours to job-related activities off the clock and pay for their own business cards.

There are just seven full-time and three part-time employees in the archives side of the records center, and they have almost no time to preserve or research the records in their care. Their backgrounds are a mixed bag of everything from military service to graduate degrees in history.

"You have to have a passion for history, a passion for the mission of records and archives, and a passion for public access to work here," says Daniel Nealand, who has spent 25 years handling the government's history, most recently as coordinator of the archival operations of the NARA center in San Bruno. Nealand has all three enthusiasms in spades. So do his staffers, most of whom seem to carry an astonishing number of instantly retrievable names, places, and dates in their brains.

At a moment's notice, Kathleen O'Connor, who works mostly with Navy records, pulls the thick glasses off her face to stick her nose into a worn picture of a fire at Pearl Harbor and readily identifies which ship is burning in the background. Then comes a quick dissertation on the events of the day, and why that particular ship was docked in that particular berth. Then she disappears to accomplish something else.

And Bill Greene, another archival staffer, becomes visibly nervous when he sees a reporter taking notes. "Um ... we don't use pen around the records," he says. Pens can leave accidental ink marks, Greene explains, handing over pencils in the same way that your mother might make you take your shoes off before stepping onto the living room rug.

And how many federal agencies are supported by rabid volunteers? Jack Higginson is one of about 25 active volunteers at the San Bruno center; they outnumber the government's paid staff by 3-to-1.

"I'm the Tuesday guy here," says Higginson, a slight man with big, square glasses and the pleasant energy of a schoolchild, who volunteers in the center's genealogy room. A retired shipyard worker, Higginson first came to the archives more than a decade ago with his wife to research her family. He got hooked on the place, and after his wife died, Higginson became a permanent fixture. He arrives at 7:30 every Tuesday morning and stays until about 4:30 in the afternoon.

And if you need information on your family, you'll be lucky if you need it on a Higginson Tuesday. After 11 years, Higginson knows the records like the back of his hand. And there are a lot of different kinds to know. All of the regional centers, including San Bruno's, contain microfilm census information for the entire nation. And Higginson can help the genealogical researcher find military records from a handful of wars, naturalization records, and more obscure documents, such as those of the Board of Commissioners for the Emancipation of Slaves.

During his Tuesday work, he's made a lot of friends; he even met a woman who was researching a family name that crossed into his own tree. "First-timers are the best," he says. "They always find something, and they're very excited."

The government is slowly losing its memory. There is neither the money nor the manpower to do much preservation of the records at the National Archives in San Bruno. Meanwhile, papers, photos, exhibits, drawings, and other materials that document the government's activities are withering, crumbling to dust, and, in some cases, providing a feast for bugs.

There is a preservation lab at San Bruno, and for some years, a conservationist worked there on documents for this and other regions. Last year, however, that position went by the wayside with the decision that preservation work could be done more efficiently from the agency's headquarters in Washington, D.C. Shipping original records back and forth takes archival records out of circulation for about two years. Meanwhile, the preservation lab sits empty in the basement in San Bruno.

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