COLLEGE PARK – President Kennedy’s assassination is here. President Nixon’s thinking is laid bare.
Hitler still struts and the execution of Japanese war criminals can be witnessed.
Clearly, National Archives II is not an ordinary library.
Tucked away between a golf course and some power lines off of Adelphi Road, Archives II opened in 1994 to house the overflow from the main Archives building, which exceeded its capacity in 1970.
Archives II now holds all of the nation’s “special media” records, including motion and still pictures, sound recordings, maps and electronic records.
The College Park annex houses all of the materials from the Nixon presidency — a total of more than 44 million documents and 450,000 still photos — and all materials relating to Kennedy’s assassination, including the two-minute home movie of his death.
In the still photograph room on the fifth-floor of the six- story building, documents range from World War I propaganda posters to the picture of Nixon meeting Elvis Presley — Archives II’s most-requested item. Disposable white cotton gloves are mandatory for anyone who wants to hold the materials there.
“This is our country’s heritage,” said Karl Weissenbach, the director of the Nixon Project at Archives II. “Our mission is to make the materials available to the taxpayers.”
By 2003, the $250-million, glass-walled facility will hold 2 million cubic feet of documents, photographs, audio and video footage, a great deal of it from World War II.
The 1.8-million-square-foot building received 44,198 visits last year compared to 81,286 to Archives I in Washington. But ordinary browsing is not recommended.
“It’s not a primary research area,” said Laura Diachenko, an Archives spokeswoman. “You have to go to the library first. You have to know what you’re looking for.”
Before they can get into the research rooms, visitors have to register as researchers. Research cards can be obtained by anyone over 16.
Once there, researchers must request materials from staff members and take notes in pencil on the loose sheets of paper provided.
But many visitors said it is worth it to see Nixon’s handwritten notes to himself for his historic visit to China or to view previously confidential National Security memos.
“There’s an initial fascination that you’re holding the same document the president held,” said Taylor Lincoln, a technical writer who helped research a book on Nixon at Archives II.
Joseph Harris, a professional researcher and former archives employee, said most of the facility’s visitors are working on projects ranging from books to documentaries.
But Weissenbach said the Archives can also be used to satisfy ordinary intellectual curiosity.
“Anyone who comes and opens up a box of materials is a researcher,” he said. “I have people who come here from Peoria and who just want to hear the Nixon tapes, just to see what he sounds like.”
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, volunteer docents give one-hour tours of the facility. But some amateurs find that they can strike it rich on their own.
“You never know what you’re going to find,” said Roger Hall, a private researcher interested in prisoners of war.
“You go down there and find shelves of documents that put you right there,” he said. “It’s like looking in your grandmother’s attic.”