COLLEGE PARK – It is 8:30 on a recent Tuesday evening — a half-hour before closing — and the bleary-eyed stragglers are filtering out of the National Archives II building after a full day’s work.
“There’s a lot of records,” sighed Michael Donaghue, a University of Connecticut graduate student who spent 12 hours looking at documents on America’s relations with Panama from 1945 to 1977.
There are more records than Donaghue can begin to imagine.
The six-story building will ultimately contain 2 million cubic feet of documents, photographs, audio and video footage — ranging from World War II newsreels to President Nixon’s taped conversations.
Opened in 1994, Archives II holds much of the overflow from the National Archives on the Mall, which had been storing excess documents in sites scattered around the Washington area.
The downtown building still houses the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and many of the genealogical records maintained by the Archives.
Archives II was in the news briefly this week when officials released tens of thousands of documents and tapes from Nixon’s White House. But Archives II has attracted its own hardcore following of academics, journalists and amateur researchers.
“I’ve been here 12 hours,” said John Rodsted, 38, a free- lance cameraman from Melbourne, Australia, working for the Australian Broadcasting Corp. “It requires it. Every hour this place is open, I’ll be here.”
For some, it is a passion for a particular subject that attracts them to the glass-walled annex. For others, the process of digging treasures from mountains of paper, photographs and tapes proves addictive.
“It’s more than satisfying curiosity,” said Roger Hall, who researches Vietnam prisoners of war for families whose sons are missing.
“It’s a need for more knowledge, another way knowledge is wealth,” said Hall, 58, a Silver Spring resident.
Last year, scholars, researchers and family historians made more than 44,000 trips to Archives II.
Some, like Rodsted, travel a long way for information. With only four weeks in the country, he planned to spend most of his time at the College Park facility, researching four one-hour television segments about battleships.
Alan James and his wife, Lorna Lloyd, are crowding their research into three days, before returning to their native England. They spent one day sorting through State Department telegrams and memos from the early 1960s for a book on the conflict in Cyprus.
As they waited for a taxi, they discussed their plan of attack for the next day — including how to streamline their research styles.
“I pass fairly quickly over the documents and summarize,” James said. “Lorna takes a more generous approach to photocopying.”
The sheer amount of information can be overwhelming. After a seven-hour day researching a project on Japanese war crimes in China during World War II, University of Maryland student David Kiang realized he had barely scratched the surface.
“Right now it’s too broad. There’s too much information,” said the 19-year-old sophomore.
Others have made careers as stack-rats: Karen Wyatt and Joan Yoshiwara have been researching television specials for about 20 years and have become regulars at Archives II.
“We tend to hang out there a lot at night,” said Wyatt, who was looking at newsreels about John Glenn and about the 1936 Democratic Convention. She was so tired after a day’s work that she swayed as she spoke.
Joseph Harris and James Konicek gave up jobs at the Archives to start their own research business.
“There’s a certain amount of creativity involved in trying to match an image (in a newsreel) to what they’re saying in a story,” said Konicek, who was researching Mexico and San Francisco in the early 20th century.
Like many Archives regulars, Konicek and Harris don’t like to talk about their projects. They don’t want to reveal hard-won discoveries to other researchers or researching companies.
Axel Frohn, an Alexandria-based writer working for the German magazine Der Spiegel, was particularly tight-lipped about his project.
“I can’t tell you,” he said curtly, when asked. He eventually said that his article was “related to history.”
As protective as they are about their work, though, many researchers will speak openly about their favorite find or wax poetic about getting lost in the stacks.
Rodsted’s biggest find was a picture of a World War II kamikaze pilot crashing into a battleship. For Konicek, there was a photograph of military brass indulging in alcohol during Prohibition.
Hall is entranced with almost everything he finds.
“You’re looking at documents that are as old as the Constitution,” Hall said. “You’re reading reports that people haven’t looked at outside the military.”
“I’m a fisherman,” Hall said, “and if you have a good spot, you keep coming back.”