It has taken the country sometime to decide where to put the mementos of its 37th President. But in the next month or so, Richard M. Nixon's long-homeless library of presidential papers and memorabilia may be close to a southern California settling place.
Partly a resource for scholars, a presidential library is also partly a memorial honoring a president. For Mr. Nixon, the nation's only president to resign under threat of impeachment, the library has taken longer than usual to place.
There are four major contenders for the site, all within 50 miles of each other south of Los Angeles:
* San Clemente, home of the Western White House during the Nixon presidency, has offered the Nixon Archives Foundation 13 acres on a bluff overlooking the Pacific. They would be donated by a local developer.
* Whittier, where Nixon grew up and went to college, has offered 25 acres of city land for the library and museum.
* California State University's Fullerton campus has proposed dividing the archives from the memorabilia in a separate library and museum. The archives would be housed on campus next to the university library and the museum would be built a few miles away in Yorba Linda, where Nixon was born.
* The University of California's Irvine campus is putting together a proposal to house the library that its chancellor hopes to have ready by April 15.
Although the Nixon Foundation remains silent on the matter, the impressions of officials at would-be sites is that foundation officials want to make a decision and get a proposal to Congress this spring, perhaps by early May.
Getting the site proposal to Congress soon could smooth its passage through Congress for two reasons.
First, the plan for a Carter library in Georgia is already being negotiated with the US General Services Administration. If the Nixon and Carter libraries are considered in Congress together, some think, the more complicated and controversial Nixon plan may get better treatment.
Second, the Nixon library is likely to stir up less debate if it hits Congress in a nonelection year.
No presidential library has been rejected by Congress since Franklin D. Roosevelt had the first one built. But the Nixon archives have been controversial from the start.
In 1974, Nixon tried to donate his papers to the National Archives, and thus retain some control over them. Congress responded with the Presidential Materials and Recordings Act, which requires that Nixon's presidential papers remain in the Washington, D.C., area.
So at the end of 1974, the original Richard Nixon Foundation disbanded, despondent of fulfilling its purpose.
No one is sure now how this law will affect setting up the archives in California.
Nixon's move to donate his papers also inspired the Presidential Records Act of 1978, decreeing that presidential papers are US property, and not subject to donation.
The Nixon library was back in the spotlight again in the fall of 1981 when Duke University in Durham, N.C., where the former president earned his law degree, began negotiating with Nixon representatives for the library.
After much campus debate, the faculty agreed to negotiate only for the archives on campus, not the museum. The negotiations sputtered and stalled.
Meanwhile, other sites, like Leavenworth, Kan., have been offered. Independence, Mo., considered becoming the first town with two presidential libraries (Harry Truman's is there), but abandoned the concept when Truman's daughter protested.
At Duke, opinions ran much stronger than they have at any of the currently competing sites. Presidential scholar James David Barber objected to the whole notion of a president's library on a campus. The libraries are built to memorialize and honor a president, he says. ''This makes them inappropriate institutions for universities, which are ideally in pursuit of objective truth.''
One of Duke's senior faculty members, historian Richard L. Watson, objected more particularly to Richard Nixon. ''I have no objection to having Richard Nixon's papers in our library,'' he explains. But a building is always a memorial to someone, he adds.
''To have a building with Richard Nixon's name on it next to, say, our chemistry building, which honors one of our most distinguished faculty, would be a desecration.''
At the Fullerton campus, in contrast, history chairman James Woodward looks at the library as a scholarly opportunity. ''My feeling is that (having the archives on campus) is appropriate to a research institution, and the university is a research institution.''
Private donations will build the library and the federal government will maintain it.