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Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Ventura County celebrating 30th anniversary

KCLU News Photo
Ronald Reagan Presidential Library Supervisory Curator Randy Swan with a podium used by the President which was just put on public display as part of the library's 30th anniversary celebration.

Most don't know about underground archives which hold more than 100,000 artifacts, and an estimated 65 million documents.

It was an incredible day in Ventura County’s history. All five living American Presidents at the time, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush were in Simi Valley for the dedication of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

It was 30 years ago, on November 4th, 1991.

"Ever since Franklin Delano Roosevelt, presidents have built libraries amid surroundings that have shaped their characters, and molded their values," said Reagan. "Within their walls are housed millions of records for scholarly interpretation, along with thousands of objects that give both solid and symbolic substance to the nation's highest office."

Generations of visitors know the three decade old museum for its exhibits ranging from presidential memorabilia to Air Force One, one of the jets President Reagan used to travel the world. Its auditoriums have hosted everyone from prime ministers to presidents.

But, what many people don’t know is that there’s a huge underground storage and research area, which houses more than 100,000 items and an estimated 65 million Reagan Administration documents.

Library Curator Randy Swan is taking us below ground for a rare look. "I think people think this is one level, but there's actually multiple levels," said Swan. However, because of security issues, we are only allowed in a secured room to view some pieces of the collection.

We step out of elevator into a long hallway. Swan points to a locked door, with a window. We can see racks containing some of the estimated 65 million documents. Many of them are still classified, so they aren't accessible to researchers and historians yet.

We walk down to the end of the hallway, where Swan has some items from the collection on a metal cart.

One of them is a tiny, gold framed hand knitted work which says Happy 30th. It was sent to the Reagans in 1982 by a member of the public, as a tribute to the couple's 30th anniversary. But ironically, the researchers going through some artifacts found it this week, as the library is celebrating its 30th anniversary.

He then points out another gift to the Reagans. It’s a handmade, framed image which shows President Reagan wearing a glittery jacket like Elvis. Swan says under federal law, gifts to Presidents belong to the American people.

"Because of the Presidential Records Act, these are considered gifts of the office, and not gifts to the individual," said Swan.

Meanwhile, there’s a staff of 18 archivists working its way through the 65 million documents.

Archivist Kate Sewell says the review process includes determining whether papers contain still classified information. "The classified collection is very small percentage of the collection, but it requires the most labor," said Sewell. "It just takes time."

Sewell and Kelly Barton have been archivists working on the collection even before the library was built. While papers are being released all the time, three decades into it, they still aren’t even halfway through the massive review process.

"There's a lot of things which aren't going to be seen by the public for a long time," said Barton.

Swan says less than one percent of the museum’s collection is on display at any given time. But, to celebrate the library’s 30th anniversary, a new exhibition opened this week.

It features a model of the library before it was built, the shovels used by the Reagans to symbolically start work, and one of the podiums used by the President at news conferences.

Swan loves the constant challenge of creating new exhibitions from the massive collection. The library also creates, and hosts other historical exhibitions which aren't necessarily related to President Reagan.

It's currently hosting a major exhibition looking at the history of the FBI, and next year is planning one which will look at some of the secrets of World War II.

The library was built with private donations. But, it’s managed by the federal government, with artifacts and documents presented without regard for political considerations or affiliations.

The library is planning a month-long celebration, kicking off with a commemorative program on November 7th. It starts at 10:30 a.m. with music. Speakers include Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Lance Orozco has been News Director of KCLU since 2001, providing award-winning coverage of some of the biggest news events in the region, including the Thomas and Woolsey brush fires, the deadly Montecito debris flow, the Borderline Bar and Grill attack, and Ronald Reagan's funeral.