The great federal rhino repository

Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 19, 1993; 11:33 AM

Let's say you spend your entire professional life collecting salamanders and putting them in jars. Let's say that, over the years, your collection grows to the point that you have, roughly, 140,000 dead salamanders. You approach retirement age, and you realize you have more than just a biological treasure. You have a storage problem. Who on God's green Earth is going to want all these dang salamanders? Who could possibly store them?

Why, the federal government, naturally.

Indeed, at the Smithsonian's Museum Support Center in Suitland, each of the 140,000 salamanders in the collection of University of Maryland professor Richard Highton are being individually tagged and stored. They will be available for research, should someone want to look at them.

For each of these salamanders there will be a unique entry into a computer database, naming the species and showing where and when the creature was found. The only exceptions are the tadpoles.

"Tadpoles are impossible to individually tag," says Kenneth Tighe, a zoologist handling the Highton collection. "It's like trying to tie a tag to a grape. So for the most part they are being" -- an official term coming up -- "lot catalogued."

What matters most is that the tadpoles have found storage. The tadpoles are lucky to have wound up in a city, Washington, for which storage is a major preoccupation. Washington is surely a must-stop in any storage fanatic's tour of the great storage cities of the world.

Storage has become a shadow industry here -- for all the words that are created there must also be an attendant storage effort. Storage isn't even an afterthought; it is almost as though storage capacity is the measure of a good government, a conscientious government. There can never be too much storage in the same way that one can never have too much memory or claim too much history. Phone logs, notebooks, scrap paper, salamanders, all of it is subject to the storage obsession of the government, because storage speaks to the government's innate personality -- a sense of monumentalism, an unflagging self-importance, and most of all, a gut-level impulse toward self-preservation.

The Smithsonian is an aberration in the sense that most of the things it stores have obvious and tangible value. There are things that would look great over a mantelpiece. The Suitland facility, for example, is full of spears -- thousands of them, bagged and bar-coded. The government has to put these things into storage because there are far too many to put on display and you can't sell them down at the corner.

But only a small fraction of the government's inventory is devoted to things the government has been given, like the salamanders. Mostly, the government stores its own work product, and little of this would be mantelpiece material. Because it's just a bunch of paper.

One foggy morning you may find yourself driving along Suitland Road, in suburban Maryland, and you will see one of those hideous federal office compounds that look like a prison. If you take a detour down an inconspicuous paved road, past empty fields, past the sign saying "Notice: No golfing on government property," you will eventually see, looming in the mist off to the left, the Washington National Records Center, a building that has a pleasant glass-windowed front but which bulges obscenely in the rear, engorged by tons and tons of paper.

Inside you walk into a room filled with about 200,000 simple cardboard boxes. This room is called a "stack," and most of these records are in what Susan Cooper, the National Archives spokeswoman, calls "Purgatory." That means they are inactive records of no permanent value and will be destroyed eventually. When? Depends. Anywhere from five years to 100 years, depending on each government agency's policies, says Michael Carlson, the center's assistant director.

Every box here has a label:

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© 1993 The Washington Post Company