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Archivist James Yancey

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The vault looks nothing like it would in a Hollywood espionage thriller. Archivist James Yancey takes me through no iris scans, voice prints or ranks of closely shaved guards. Just a couple of busy archivists look up to notice I've walked in through a standard bank vault door into the classified section of the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum. But all the secrets to which Jimmy Carter was privy during his presidency are in here.

Two million classified pages record all you could want to know about national and international affairs from 1976 to 1981. Yancey sits down at a secure computer and runs a database search on "Iran." The search returns 12,000 now declassified pages. "These pages are not what you call the low-hanging fruit," says Yancey. We read a prophetic -- if still partially redacted -- CIA analysis of the Kurds' chances of winning self-determination.

The library has a total of 28 million pages, most of them public, most of them archived and stored in alkaline boxes that draw out the acidity in the paper to better preserve them. In addition to daily schedules, internal memos, photos and speeches, there are about 3,000 boxes of letters written to the president, along with copies of Carter's replies and, sometimes, briefings on the recipients. "Willie Nelson is a well-known country western singer," reads one. "You have to say that in Washington, D.C.," says Yancey, who started out with the National Archives in D.C. 30 years ago working in records declassification.

Of course, the most interesting information is found in the documents that were initially classified. In the library's first 20 years, Yancey estimates they were able to review and declassify 30,000-40,000 pages of classified material in a plodding hard-copy process. But over the past four years, they have scanned 1.3 million pages into a new searchable database, allowing the relevant federal agencies to remotely access and clear the documents for declassification, resulting in a flood of new public information, with printouts available to anyone for 15 cents a page, and the entire declassified database soon to be available over the Internet, no background check required.

Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum, 441 Freedom Parkway. 404-865-7100. www.jimmycarterlibrary.gov. For a directory of public archives, visit arcweb.archives.gov.

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