The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library is nearing completion on a California hilltop, but it may be years before the former president's papers are available to scholars.

Reagan is the first president to come under a 1978 law that makes presidential papers the property of the government and gives the National Archives five years to process them."We would prefer to use the full five years for processing," John T. Fawcett, assistant archivist for presidential libraries, said in an interview.

However, some papers may be available before the expiration of the five years, which would be Jan. 20, 1994, Fawcett said.

"Most former presidents tend to want to open these papers rather quickly," the Archives official said. "There are good administrative reasons why we should wait five years to begin opening the papers, but we may do it sooner."

Cathy Goldberg, a spokeswoman for Reagan, said from Los Angeles that Reagan "is pleased that scholars, students and the public will have access to the presidential papers of his administration, but since the library is under construction at this time, the date of availability has not been determined."

Samuel Gammon, executive director of the American Historical Association, said, "In general, we are always anxious to see things as soon as possible, but we do recognize that the National Archives, in handling presidential libraries, has certain financial problems and so on."

Until Reagan, former presidents owned their White House papers, except for those of Richard Nixon, which were made government property by special legislation after the Watergate scandals. Since the establishment of the presidential library system, beginning with the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, N.Y., other presidents have donated their papers to the government and they have generally been available in less than five years.

Reagan's library, being built near Simi Valley, Calif., is expected to be completed shortly after his 80th birthday on Feb. 6. After that, the Archives will begin moving in the papers, which are now stored in a warehouse in Culver City, Calif. Then the Ronald Reagan Foundation will install museum exhibits dealing with the careers of Reagan and his wife, Nancy. Dedication of the library is scheduled for early November.