SIMI VALLEY — On a recent weekday at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, fifth-grader Edwin Mendoza's eyes were opened to the 19th-century world of Queen Victoria.
At the same time, J.J. Albert, a 22-year-old Cal Lutheran University senior, was poring over once-private documents on the 40th president's immigration policy for his final project.
And author John Campbell, visiting from London, worked on uncovering historical morsels to use in the second volume of his biography on former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Since the library opened a decade ago, it has launched dozens of educational outreach programs, targeting everyone from youngsters studying the American Revolution to graduate students looking at how the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization strike affected labor policy in the early 1980s.
With 50 million pages--10 million of which have so far been made available for research--the Reagan facility holds more documents than any of the other nine presidential libraries operated by the National Archives and Records Administration. It has attracted about 160,000 visitors and 200 researchers each year since it opened in 1991, according to annual reports from the federal agency.
And officials hope to draw even more in the years ahead, with a goal to double the number of schoolchildren--from 25,000 to 50,000--who tour the museum's exhibits each year and expand partnerships with universities and high schools to take advantage of treasures hidden deep in the library's archives.
"We have endless opportunity to engage people, from first-graders to PhD students--all in our backyard," said R. Duke Blackwood, the library's director and a former fund-raiser for USC.
A large part of that opportunity comes from the Presidential Learning Center--a joint operation between the museum and the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation. Last fall, the learning center kicked off what officials say will become an annual workshop to introduce high school teachers to the library's research opportunities.
Since then, a handful of high school students have come in to use the documents and audio-visual resources for extra-credit assignments, said Lou Anne Missildine, the library's education specialist. Later this year, an advanced placement history class from Santa Susana High School in Simi Valley will spend the day in the research room.
"We want to reach out to them because this primary-source material is so valuable," she said. "If it lights a fire under any of them to become historians or to do further research here, that's what we want to encourage."
Albert, a social sciences major at Cal Lutheran, said he wishes he would have had that opportunity earlier in his academic career. Though he knew the library was fewer than five miles away, he said he was oblivious to the access he had to its research materials until he enrolled in Michaela Reaves' class on the American presidency.
Forging Close Ties to Area Universities
After sifting through memos, notes and speeches written by White House attorneys and other staff members, Albert said he is more knowledgeable about how the policies were formulated and about the president's decision-making process.
"It's a lot better than studying out of books in a dorm room," he said.
Reaves' course, required for history and social science majors at the university, includes an introduction to the archives at the beginning of the semester and requires turning in either a research paper or a week's worth of lesson plans at the end of the term in May.
"For my students it's such an enrichment to have the library here," Reaves said. "It's really enhanced what we can do."
She also makes a point to take advantage of the authors and scholars who come from around the world to use the library's research room.
Campbell, who said his is the first historical biography of Thatcher, has spent two weeks gathering quotes from personal letters she and Reagan wrote to each other while both were in office. Toward the end of his stay, he spoke to Reaves' class, sharing what he found with her students.
"Reagan is very keen to call her 'Margaret' in these formal cables between governments, as if he's got her by the elbow," Campbell said. "At the moment that's what I've found quite interesting."
Campbell said he spent a week at the libraries of the other two presidents Thatcher worked with--Jimmy Carter and George Bush--but has found the most useful information in Simi Valley.
"I think there's a lot here, and a lot more seems to be open," he said.