Shortly after Rutherford B. Hayes was sworn in as president in 1877, he asked a member of the White House staff to get a saw.

"Probably the most unusual artifact from inaugural history is the square of wood that Hayes ordered sawed from the spot where he stood taking the oath of office," says Herbert R. Collins. "No one else has done that."

Inaugural trivia? Yes. And Herb Collins is one of the government's biggest experts in the field.

With little prompting, he'll rattle off statistics on the weather ("Reagan's was the warmest, 56 degrees; Grant's second was the coldest, 5 degrees below zero"); the unusual ("In the Kennedy inauguration, a space heater set the podium on fire during the invocation"); or the firsts (James K. Polk was the first president whose inaugural speech was transmitted by telegraph; William McKinley's was the first to be filmed).

Today, Collins is executive director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Philatelic Collection. But from 1960 until 1981 he worked his way up the ranks of the museum's political history division until he was its executive director. He is often called on for his expertise in presidential inaugurations. In 1981, the Reagan-Bush Inaugural Committee asked him to write the introduction to the inaugural souvenir album. Today at noon, he will give a free lecture at the National Archives on "Inaugurations: Presidential Trappings and Trivia."

Interviewed in his tiny fifth-floor office in the National Museum of American History, Collins said he became interested in inaugurations when he was "a child eating cereal." For a box top and a quarter, he said, a kid could get pictures of the presidents and vice presidents -- and he acquired a lot of them.

"I was one of the few people in Caroline High School in Bowling Green, Va. , who could name the vice presidents as well as the presidents and knew when they served," Collins said.

To him, an inauguration is perhaps the most visible symbol of the nation's system of government at work.

"They also show how we can improvise, because only one paragraph is in the Constitution about new presidents, and that's the relatively short oath of office," Collins said.

For the historian, each inauguration has three distinct parts -- the parade, the ceremony and the inaugural balls -- whose artifacts may become precious with time. To some extent, he said, it's like collecting antiques. It depends on "who touched the item or how it was used or how many there were."

"All invitations, programs and mementos that were handled by people at those official functions become historic artifacts that we would want" for the Smithsonian, Collins said.

The museum has more than 100,000 items in its political collection. But Collins said that no one had ever separated the campaign items from inaugural memorabilia.

Walking through the section of the American History museum where some of the collection is on display, Collins pointed to a small stuffed animal with a tag underneath that reads "Champ Clark."

"We would all be cuddling stuffed hound dogs instead of stuffed teddy bears if Clark would have beaten Teddy Roosevelt," Collins suggested.

But that's not the only dog story Collins knows. Nearby stands a carriage in which President Ulysses S. Grant rode from his inaugural ceremony to the White House. Built under the seats were boxes where hound dogs could be kept. "I guess that was in case Grant wanted to go hunting after the inaugural," Collins said.

"To me it's a quest for more, always," he said. It would be nice, he said, to have the umbrella that sheltered Polk as he took the oath, the copy of "Treasure Island" that Charlie Taft was reading while his father, William Howard Taft, took the oath or the top hat Lincoln lost when he attended Zachary Taylor's inauguration, 12 years before Lincoln himself was sworn in.

The Smithsonian also has located all but one of the Bibles used for inaugurations -- that was the one Lyndon B. Johnson used on Air Force One in Dallas.

Although Collins was reluctant to identify the most prized item, one of his personal favorites is the topcoat Richard M. Nixon wore when he took the oath of office in 1972.

Nixon decided not to wear an overcoat, but then the temperature dropped. "We found out that a Secret Service agenct named Taylor -- I can't remember his first name, but I'm pretty sure it was Robert -- took off his own coat and gave it to Nixon," Collins said. "We tracked him down, and he gave us the coat."

Now Collins spends his days tracking the 16 million items in the Smithsonian's stamp collection and handling the government's historical records on the world's postal systems.

"This job is very much different from that of political curator," he said. The closest he will get to the inauguration in the course of his job is collecting the stamps that the Postal Service will issue to commemorate it.