What I Found (And Found Out) At The National Archives

07/02/2012 04:18 pm ET | Updated Sep 01, 2012

Events of June 30, 2012

In an experience I think is probably common to many people of my generation, I first became aware of the National Archives while watching Nicholas Cage sneak inside of their building in the movie National Treasure. (Let me just add for the record that I correctly guessed that Dr. Chase's computer password was "Valley Forge," and, being 11 years old at the time, I felt like a supergenius for having guessed it.) The fact that I first heard their name in the context of their being robbed, however, in no way diminishes my deep respect for the Archives and their amazing collections.

I made plans to visit the Archives at their building on the National Mall this weekend, to get my own glimpse at the Declaration of Independence before the July 4th crowd made the line to see it absurdly long. While I'd visited last year during my time in D.C., in the intervening months, I'd gained a new appreciation of the Archives through their online Today's Document feature, which presents an archival document every day that's somehow related to an event that occurred on that date in history.

So, after a thankfully short wait in Saturday's heat, I passed through the grand doors of the visitor's entrance and into the lovely air-conditioned lobby of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) building. Still a little bit worn out from the heat, I decided to take in the introductory film in the downstairs theater, "Democracy Starts Here."

The film presented a brief introduction to the collections of the Archives, as well as stories from several researchers about things they had discovered there, from records of the treatment of Japanese-Americans in internment camps during World War II to Albert Einstein's immigration papers to the original patent drawings for various in-line skate designs. I walked out of the theater eager to find some national treasures of my own.

So, here's what I found -- and found out -- at the National Archives:

- The Archives have over 9 billion records, but that doesn't mean they have everything. I wanted to see if I could find any documents related to the 1985 discovery of the wreck of the Titanic, hopefully newspaper articles. However, since the expedition that found the wreck was conducted by the civilian Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in collaboration with the French IFREMER organization, and the Archives only has records of the activities of the United States government, I was in the wrong place. The archivist on duty at the Learning Center suggested that I try the Library of Congress instead.

- However, they might have something related. The Archives do, however, contain documents related to the official 1912 US government inquiry into the sinking of the Titanic, including the court testimony of several survivors and Coast Guard reports of the sea conditions during the week of the sinking.

- If you're just browsing, the collection highlights on the Archives website can be a great place to start. I checked out some examples from the collection that were highlighted and quickly stumbled across the NASA-related records! One item I found was a letter from a naturalized citizen to President Nixon about how proud it had made him to watch the Apollo 11 landing with his family.

- "Documents" aren't just words on paper -- the Archives has photographs, videos and sound recordings, too. I also found some aerial photographs of Cape Canaveral in the 1950s and today, with notations indicating which roads remained the same and where launchpads and other new structures had been built.

- The Washington building isn't the Archives' only location. When I came across a cluster of records related to the Space Shuttle Challenger accident, I discovered that the shuttle commander, Francis "Dick" Scobee, was considered a "Person of Exceptional Prominence" by the Archives, and that records of his Air Force service were available for public viewing... at the Archives' Military Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri! (However, for those of us unable to travel to St. Louis, the Center lets people write to them to request photocopies or digital scans of records.)

- The Presidential Libraries are part of NARA, too. (Granted, I found this out on my visit last year, which was why I knew to visit the Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston during the school year, but it's still good to know.) What I WAS able to view online were a collection of documents related to the speech given by President Reagan a few hours after the accident occurred. The hard copies of these documents were stored at the Reagan Presidential Library in California, but I could view the online scans from anywhere, including D.C. (This is when, as a book I had as a little kid put it, the Internet can be like a library without walls.)

- The Archives are full of surprises. It was very cool to see the drafts the speech had gone through and the edits that the president and his staff had made to it. The staff had to work very quickly to make sure the speech was ready in time for the president's address, and they made sure to provide phonetics to keep him from mispronouncing any of the astronauts' names. But what really got to me was a handwritten notation at the bottom of one page, presumably addressed to the president, "We know how tough this day has been for you."

- Preserving freedom is serious business. The Declaration of Independence is rather hard to read in places because it was stored in direct sunlight for many years -- a definite no-no for historical artifacts. Today, all three of the Charters of Freedom -- the Declaration, the United States Constitution, and the Bill of Rights -- are kept in a darkened, climate-controlled display area. Each of the Charters is displayed under several layers of bulletproof glass, in a case filled with argon gas. Even so, visitors are discouraged from touching the glass. And, since the displaying of the Charters has been changed since the movie was filmed, the tricks used by the characters in National Treasure to steal the Declaration wouldn't work today.

- Which isn't to say there aren't some laughs to be found in the Archives, too. In the "Public Vaults" exhibit, a display about the presidency contains video recordings of presidents speaking about various topics. George H.W. Bush's "I'm not going to eat any more broccoli" remarks had me and everyone else in the room in stitches. The same room contained various letters written by citizens to the president or other government officials, including several VERY funny ones from children, including a plea from Elvis fans not to make him cut his hair when he was drafted, a schoolboy's comments that he approved of President Kennedy's physical fitness plan but thought the teachers should be made to participate as well, and a seventh grader who thought that if his mother had declared his messy room "a disaster area," he ought to be able to request government assistance in cleaning it up.

- There are comic books in the Archives! Another display in the "Public Vaults" exhibit lets visitors see artifacts that were used as evidence in government investigations. In the 1950s, Congress conducted an investigation to determine if comic books lead to crime. You can see a list of things they determined were inappropriate for children's comic books, including "People being attacked by wild animals or reptiles," as well as a list of comics they thought contained inappropriate content. (Superboy and The Adventures of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were considered "Somewhat Objectionable".)

- Exploration is well-represented in the Archives. Elsewhere in the Public Vaults, I checked out some stereoscopic "3-D" photographs taken on survey expeditions to the West in the late 1800s, including some taken on John Wesley Powell's expeditions to the Grand Canyon. And an exhibit on polar exploration had Admiral Peary's sextant and a recording of a lecture he gave about his trip to the North Pole, as well as the original "magic lantern" slides he used in the lecture.

- And 9 billion records means there's always something new to discover. Seeing that polar exhibit reminded me of another historical event I was interested in -- the voyage of the submarine USS Nautilus under the North Pole in 1958! I'd visited the Nautilus at the Submarine Force Museum in Groton, Connecticut a few years before and seen the marker in New York City indicating where the ticker-tape parade for the submarine's crew had begun, and knew that the trip to the arctic had been a Navy operation -- and thus within the purview of the Archives. And I plan on looking it up on the NARA website -- just as soon as I submit this post!