WHEN YOU THINK of the National Archives, the picture that often comes to mind is that of a throng of summer tourists lining up for a glimpse of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. But there's a whole lot more going on than that, year-round.
There are informal talks by famous personalities, classic movies and fascinating exhibits covering every phase of American life; best of all, they're free.
You may even be able to find out more about your own ancestors. After all, it was at the Archives that Alex Hailey first uncovered information on Kunta Kinte, Chicken George and other real-life characters that people "Roots," his absorbing best-seller. But you don't have to be an award-winning author to make use of the material stored here.
"This is the most accessible archives in the world," boasts public affairs officer Jill Brett. "Anyone can examine genealogical, military and other ecords, and we have staffers who will point you in the right direction. Even younger people can do research here, but they must be accompanied by an adult if they're under 16."
Brett says that about 75 percent of the nonprofessional researchers who use the Archives want to complete a family genealogy. But many are interested in the Civil War and World War II -- espcially anything involving the atomic bomb, documents on our westward expansion, the census, and early photos, maps and aerial surveys of the United States.
Many veterans are interested in examining service and pension records, as well as the history of the units in which they served.
"It's not just old paper that's stored here," Brett stresses. "You can also hear recordings made by historical figures and view films made by the military. Or you can watch examples of the old Fox Movietone newsreels that were once so popular. But you do have to make an appointment for this."
If the idea of poring through nearly four billion paper documents, mountains of photos, maps and other printed material seems daunting, however, never fear. There are always general interest programs, films and exhibits prepared by curators who have done all the hard work.
"We have a very active program, including authors' nights, lectures, book signings and film screenings," says Brett. "If you're interested, just write for a monthly calendar of events."
The address is National Archives, Office of Public Affairs, Washington, DC 20408.
THE NATIONAL ARCHIVES
EXHIBITION HALL -- Constitution Avenue between Seventh and Ninth streets NW. 202/501-5000. Open 10 to 5:30 daily.
RESEARCH ROOMS -- Pennsylvania Avenue between Seventh and Ninth streets NW. Open 8:45 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 to 5 Saturdays. Closed on federal holidays.
NOVEMBER -- The American West is big this month, with the screening Tuesday of "Enduring Dreams," an examination of the rise of Native American artists, and the classic "My Darling Clementine," a 1946 epic with Henry Fonda, Ward Bond and Victor Mature (Nov. 29 and 30). The history of Tudor Place and its residents will be discussed on Nov. 27. If you're an architecture buff, try the lecture on the historic Octagon House on Nov. 28.
DECEMBER -- Five performances of "I Can't Come Home for Christmas," based on the original World War II materials and produced by Interact Theater Co. Shows run Dec. 3-7.