Walking into the records rooms at the NARA center in San Bruno is a bit like strolling into the last scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Aisles are surrounded by 14-foot-high shelving for as far as you can see, filled with neatly stacked boxes of files identified by plainly typed tags on the outside. Small hygrothermographs sit on shelves around the room, recording the climate. The temperature is always 70 degrees, with 50 percent humidity. The only sound is the ticking of automatic timers on light switches, marking out the seconds until they can return the room to its preferred state of darkness.
There are about 200 million records from 110 different federal agencies on these shelves. Also on these shelves are 10,000 records from the federal courts of this region -- with no practical way to search them. A point of bureaucratic idiocy has left the only index to the records in the hands of the courts.
Somewhere within these records are the legal papers and exhibits of Iva Togura D'Aquino (aka Tokyo Rose); labor leader Harry Bridges, who was investigated by the FBI for alleged communist activity; kidnapper Caryl Chessman; entertainment genius Walt Disney; and Robert Stroud, "The Birdman of Alcatraz." Somewhere inside these files is the patent for the riveted pockets on Levi's bluejeans, and the design for cable cars, both of which were subjects of federal court challenge.
Here's what else you can find in Uncle Sam's attic: records relating to Japanese internment camps and seized property; photos and immigration records of picture brides; the communications records, charts, and search information relating to Amelia Earhart; Navy records and photos documenting the bombing of Pearl Harbor; surgeon general reports on the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake; gold certificates; government property disposal records; contracts for Howard Hughes' Spruce Goose aircraft; maintenance records on former President Richard Nixon's "Western White House" in San Clemente; and accounts of negotiations in the 1934 San Francisco Longshoremen's strike. There are even remnants of the U.S. Food Administration's advertising campaign to remind citizens to conserve comestibles during World War I, including photos of an Oakland billboard that read: "That sugar in the bottom of your cup is Pro-German."
All the records in this building -- important and interesting, arcane and dull -- are under siege.
Long ignored by the rest of the federal government, the National Archives and Records Administration has both space and funding problems. To save money, Washington officials would like to close several of the agency's 18 regional centers, possibly consolidating their records into a giant federal cave in Lee's Summit, Mo. Officials have yet to decide which regional archives, if any, will remain open. As they ponder, historical records age and disintegrate.
The NARA consolidation project has raised the ire of researchers, historians, scholars, and genealogists, as well as ordinary patrons, who have given government officials an earful on the subject of the San Bruno archives. It is an intensely personal and passionate issue, especially for the people in charge of the files themselves.
In 1987, about the time Neil Thomsen answered an ad in the San Francisco Chronicle aimed at "history buffs," the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service turned over its alien case files from the Chinese Exclusion Act era -- that is, from 1882 to 1943 -- to the National Archives. Thomsen inherited the job of making sense of them.
The Exclusion Act severely restricted Chinese immigration in response to concern about the large numbers of Chinese who came to the United States to work as laborers on the first transcontinental railroad lines. Under the act, Chinese immigrants were able to re-enter the United States only if they had been in the country before 1880. And new immigration was restricted to those Chinese who could prove they were merchants, teachers, students, or travelers.
As a result, Chinese immigrants had to document their personal and professional identities through drawings, photos, birth certificates, marriage certificates, and whatever else they might have. Many of those items remain in the government's immigration files. And because most of those files concern people who came through the Angel Island immigration center, they're housed in San Bruno.
This is no museum collection. There are hundreds of beat-up old cardboard boxes containing files identified only by number (most relating to ship berth and ticket numbers). There is no index. Although he had no background in Chinese history, Thomsen's work on organizing the files has made him a bit of an expert. And if he has had little time to search or preserve those files, his job is not without its exciting discoveries.
One day, Thomsen remembers, he located the immigration file of Dr. Sun Yat Sen, whom historians refer to as "the father of modern China," after years of chasing the official's papers across the country. Dr. Sun overthrew the Manchu dynasty to found the Republic of China in 1911 (a Nationalist movement that predated the Communist People's Republic of China). The file documents one of Dr. Sun's successful arrivals in America, during which he posed as a native-born resident of Hawaii to collect money and drum up support for his revolution.
But often as not, the truly compelling stories in these archives involve not the noted or famed, but one or another of the faceless thousands of individuals who have landed over time on America's Pacific shores.