The Curious Case of Presidential Libraries

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You may have heard of Presidential Libraries. Maybe your home state had one, or you visited one on a field trip. But what exactly are they, and who runs them?

Presidential Libraries are privately constructed archives and museums that hold records and memorabilia of the former Presidents for researchers and the public. They also create historical exhibits and hold public events. The libraries, once constructed, are administered by the Office of Presidential Libraries, which is a subset of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

Before diving into how to access materials in the Libraries, it pays to know exactly how they function and have developed over time.

Franklin Roosevelt was the first President to donate his personal and professional papers to the Federal Government and create a library. Before him, materials from past Presidencies ended up dispersed across historical societies, private collections, and other libraries.

In 1955, the Presidential Libraries Act officially established the—rather odd—system for creating Presidential Libraries. Rather than being completely government funded, the act encouraged, but didn’t require, Presidents to donate their administration’s materials. The President would then collect non-federal funds to build the library from donors and local governments (typically the President’s hometown or home state). Once the library was built, NARA took over control.

The Presidential Records Act of 1978 reformed this system. Instead of asking Presidents to donate their records willingly, all Presidential records became owned by the public. The act defines Presidential records as: “documentary materials, or any reasonably segregable portion thereof, created or received by the President, the President’s immediate staff, or a unit or individual of the Executive Office of the President whose function is to advise or assist the President, in the course of conducting activities which relate to or have an effect upon the carrying out of the constitutional, statutory, or other official or ceremonial duties of the President.” (44 U.S.C. § 2201.) Records are exempt from public release for five years after the end of an administration to give archivists time to sort through them and prepare them for researchers. After that period, records are subject to Freedom of Information Act requests.

The Presidential Libraries Act of 1986 further reformed the system. In order to cut down on taxpayer costs, it requires 20% of the Library’s construction costs to be covered by completely private endowments. That percentage increases if the library reaches a certain size.

This system, while saving money, has created concerns about the role of private actors in the Libraries. Specifically, they have been criticized for their overly rosy historical depictions, the opacity of their roles and influence on the Libraries compared to the government, and for trying to turn the Libraries into tourist traps rather than archives of serious research.   

Perhaps in response to these criticisms, President Obama’s upcoming library is making a major break from tradition. The complex in Chicago will have no on-site materials or even a reading room. Instead, the Obama Foundation is paying to have all of his presidential archives digitized. This will theoretically make them more accessible, but some are concerned a lack of curation could lead to a “data-dump” that makes finding specific documents impossible.  

Controversies aside, Presidential Libraries can be helpful resources and have been valuable in establishing an accurate historical record. For example, research in Library archives have shown that Dwight Eisenhower wasn’t just a passive figurehead, and that the LBJ White House was in intense conflict over whether to escalate the Vietnam War, despite the administration’s public-facing certainty.

Presidential Library holdings include textual materials, photographs, videos, and artifacts. Some of the most useful resources are staff records (for example, email and telephone transcripts), public and personal papers, Federal Agency records, and historical materials.

Accessing these records has obviously been made more difficult by COVID. Currently, all the Presidential Libraries are closed to the public, but many records have been digitized and can be accessed through the National Archives Catalog. If you’re looking for a particular President’s records, the “advanced search” function allows you to filter by the location of archived material, as well as by type of document.

Each of the libraries also has their own website. These sites have detailed information on their holdings (including finding aids, collection guides, and details on what parts of the collection have been digitized). If finding aids are not available online, NARA recommends contacting the Library for more information on the materials available for research.

A full list of the Presidential Libraries, their addresses, and links to their websites are available here. If you’re interested in learning more about researching Presidential documents, you can check out our past blog posts:

·       Researching Presidential Materials: Key Resources to Know

·       Researching Executive Orders – A New Twist

Posted by Andrew J. Wisniewsky on Mon. March 22, 2021 10:00 AM
Categories: Uncategorized

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