At least once a week for the past 10 years, Lois Salmans' search for her ancestors has taken her from her Newport Beach home to a massive, pyramid-shaped building nestled in the hills of Laguna Niguel.
There, in the National Archives on the first floor of the seven-tiered Chet Holifield Building, Salmans spends nearly eight hours glued to a microfilm reader, poring over names in federal census schedules dating back to 1790.
After all these years, Salmans has still not grown tired of her quest for the descendants of James Chichester, her immigrant ancestor who landed in Salem, Mass., in 1640.
"Oh, good heavens, no," said Salmans, 66. "I just hope I live long enough to finish what I'm doing."
Salmans is one of the more than 50 people a day--about 13,000 a year--who do research at the Pacific Southwest regional branch of the National Archives. Like Salmans, the majority of patrons are working on their family trees.
But whether they are genealogists, biographers, scholars, lawyers, environmentalists, social historians or students, if it's federal documents they want to peruse, they've come to the right place.
The regional archives is a virtual treasure trove of historical documents--a repository for everything from territorial Arizona court records to a cache of Richard Nixon's pre-presidential papers.
Among the treasures to be found among the archives' stacks are:
A copy of a letter from then-Vice President Nixon to Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet Union's Council of Ministers chairman, inquiring about the fate of 11 missing men aboard a C-130 U.S. Air Force transport aircraft shot down over Soviet Armenia in 1958. "It is impossible for the American people to believe," Nixon wrote, "that these 11 crew members disappeared without a trace and that nothing is known about them by the Soviet authorities. . . ."
Pilot Chuck Yeager's notes from his flight breaking the sound barrier in 1947 over what is now Edwards Air Force Base.
Errol Flynn's 1946 registration for his yacht Zaca. It certifies that Flynn will use the boat for pleasure, which the legendary Lothario underscored by having the word pleasure typed in capitals followed by five exclamation points.
The regional archives, which include material from federal agencies in Southern California, Arizona and Clark County, Nev., houses more than 17,000 cubic feet of original records. That's not to mention documents on 48,000 rolls of microfilm spanning everything from Revolutionary War military service records to immigration arrival records.
The amount of paper work produced by federal agencies over the years is staggering, and the National Archives in Laguna Niguel is one of 11 regional branches where the most historically and informationally significant material winds up for safekeeping (related story, Page 6).
Indeed, if the Smithsonian Institution is the nation's attic, the National Archives is the nation's filing cabinet.
The federal agency prefers to call itself "the nation's memory."
"To me, 'filing cabinet' sounds more like it's closed and people can't use it, and really the drawer is open," said Diane Nixon, archives regional director. "We like to think of the 'filing cabinet' as being accessible and open to everybody. And we want people to know this exists."
The National Archives, at 24000 Avila Road, is open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and on the first Saturday of each month for microfilm research only.
All 11 regional archives opened in 1969.
"Practically every (federal) agency has regional offices so they might as well keep those records in the region so they can be used by that agency and researchers in that area," said Nixon, regional director since 1984. "Our motto is, 'You don't have to go to Washington to visit the National Archives.' "
The National Archives-Pacific Southwest Region and the Los Angeles Federal Records Center moved into the Chet Holifield Building from an unsafe and deteriorating facility in Bell in 1975. (The 1.5-million-square-foot building, known as the "Ziggurat" because of its resemblance to an ancient Babylonian or Assyrian temple, also houses offices of the Internal Revenue Service, Immigration and Naturalization Service, U.S. Geological Survey and other federal agencies.)
The National Archives is housed on the same floor as the Federal Records Center, which currently stores more than 600,000 cubic feet of non-current records for federal agencies. Federal agencies are not required to store their documents in the Records Center, but Nixon said most do so because it is the most cost-effective way of keeping them.
Ninety-seven percent of the documents in the Records Center will ultimately be disposed of; only 3%--those records deemed "permanently valuable" by archivists--will be transferred to the National Archives.
Still, that's about 500 to 700 cubic feet of records a year. (One cubic-foot storage box, according to Nixon, will hold about 3,000 sheets of paper.)
The National Archives has the atmosphere of a library--without books.