Now, Brown's campaign to get his old job back has sparked a surge of interest in these disintegrating archival documents that normally excite only historical researchers. And it has highlighted a law in California that gives former governors power over who peruses their papers for at least half a century.
Unlike federal law, which requires most presidential papers to be made public within 12 years, California's statute says governors control access until 50 years have passed or they die, whichever is later. That is far too long, some say.
The former governors "are very unlikely for the rest of their political careers to have to answer to anything that's in those archives," said Peter Scheer, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition.
Scheer was granted access to the files from Brown's two terms as California's chief executive, between 1975 and 1983, though he has not yet read them. He wants them open to everyone.
Since the race for governor began taking shape last year, reporters seeking to review Brown's papers have waited up to six months for permission. Brown, currently state attorney general, has approved a handful of requests more quickly, including one from The Times that he granted within a day.
Campaign workers for Meg Whitman, the leading Republican candidate for governor, issued their request in March and have received no answer.
"It is essential for Californians to evaluate Jerry Brown's previous record as governor," said Whitman's spokesman, Tucker Bounds. "We put our request in because we feel like we can be a vehicle for making those records more widely known.... It's important for them to just be open to the public as he seeks this office."
In an interview, Brown called the recent complaints "a lot of silliness" related to the campaign. He said that in the past he had given permission to anyone who sought access to the papers but that few were interested because the material isn't sexy.
Though he said he'd consider broadening access, Brown defended his practice of approving requests personally "in a conscientious way, keeping faith with the tradition of California governors." He said, "I thought something that's laid in the dusty archives for several decades, all of a sudden — I didn't feel that this was of quite the urgency that a few folks did."
He promised to get to Whitman's request in "due course" but said he didn't see her as a "dispassionate researcher or journalist."
"If she called me, maybe I might take her over there; together we could go," Brown joked. Bounds called that statement "cynical."
The papers focus mostly on policy issues and contain little that's personal, said Brown and others who've seen them. Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles and an aide to Brown when he was secretary of state, said there would be no political benefit to Brown's opening them to the public, especially if they contain items he might not want revealed, such as letters from singer Linda Ronstadt, whom he dated while governor.
"I never wrote any official letter to Linda Ronstadt, you can be sure of that," Brown said. "She wrote me a number of things, but I don't believe those are in the archives."
Across the country, there is little consistency in how states handle their governors' papers, said Victoria Walch, executive director of the Council of State Archivists in Iowa. Some governors defy laws requiring them to turn papers over, and archivists seldom have the resources to force them to comply. The group is now updating its guidelines.
"What we are running into with the latest handbook is, what do you with the guy's BlackBerry and how do you make them realize that that is a record too?" she said.
California's other three living former governors, George Deukmejian, Pete Wilson (who is Whitman's campaign chairman) and Gray Davis, follow the same policy as Brown, requiring people to obtain permission to review their papers. None responded to interview requests, but Josh Stinn, an associate at Davis' firm, said that there had been about one request a year in the four years they'd been working together and that he couldn't recall any being rejected.
Brown's papers appeared to generate the same level of interest, said author Ethan Rarick, who got permission to review them nearly a decade ago for a book about Brown's father, Pat, also a former governor. Rarick said he found the documents stacked neatly on giant floor-to-ceiling shelves.
"They looked as if nobody had looked at them since Jerry was governor," Rarick said.
Joe Mathews, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and a former Times reporter, has examined the boxes at USC's Doheny Library. He found notes from Brown to scientists and economists asking questions about subjects such as the tax revolt that led to the passage of Proposition 13, and issues such as alternative energy. There was little personal information except short notes offering comfort to the sick and to relatives of people who had died.
"He's a very good writer of condolences," Mathews said.
Historically, California governors could do as they wished with their archives. But in 1988, after Brown had left office, Secretary of State March Fong Eu claimed they were public records under a 1975 law Brown had signed and belonged at the state archives.
Brown, who successfully fought her, recalled that the state archives back then were disorganized in a warehouse and that some had been damaged by water. Brown said that he tried to send his papers to UC Berkeley, where his father's are kept, but that there wasn't room, so he sent them to USC, which agreed to hire a former aide as his archivist.
Deukmejian subsequently signed a law requiring future governors to send their files to the state archives (his went to Stanford) but maintaining their control over them.
Brown said he hasn't gone to see his own papers since sending the material to USC 22 years ago. He said he intended to go some time ago, with the idea of writing a book, and might have to hurry now.
"Maybe I better get anything that's juicy myself out there," he said, "or I'll get scooped. But I doubt that."