‘With the Bark Off ’:
Our Presidential Libraries
“Man’s desire to be remembered is colossal.”1 This is apparently what Franklin
Roosevelt—designer and subject of the first presidential library—said in 1943 when he
first laid eyes on the pyramids of Egypt. He wasn’t so much talking about the pharaohs
of Ancient Egypt as he was about himself. Presidential libraries embody, at least in part,
an egoistic ambition for immortality. We might find here a cautionary parallel in Percy
Shelley’s famous work, “Ozymandias,” which laments the futility of this pursuit in the
face of the leveling sands of time:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings,
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.2
Michael Reilly, Reilly of the White House (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1947), 170.
Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Ozymandias,” in Poetry X , June 19, 2003,
<http://poetry.poetryx.com/poems/552/> (March 26, 2009): ll. 9-14.
The static monuments of the past – obelisks, temples, preserved homes, and other
dedicatory markers – have given way to new American memorials and an ideology of
self-commemoration.3 At their best, presidential libraries have the ability to allow
succeeding generations to revisit, rethink, and redefine these presidencies and thus also
the greater American narrative. But as self-commemorations, we have good reason to be
suspect. What, then, are the purposes of erecting these new tributes? Have we reached a
greater understanding of the executive office as a result? Have they promoted civic
responsibility and engagement? Do they meet the standards of access, reliability, and
authenticity espoused in the museological and archival traditions? Are their construction
and maintenance worth the costs involved?
This paper will begin with a brief history of presidential libraries from Herbert
Hoover to George W. Bush. Attempting to document the full history of these libraries
and their contents is a futile effort: not only is each library constantly evolving (with
structural additions, new technologies, changing exhibits), a new one is now constructed
every five to ten years. For this reason it is more important to focus on the problems
inherent in their construction and ongoing management, as well as the legislation
governing them so that future projects may meet the intended goal of providing an
accurate history through spaces and objects in which and with which the public can
actively engage, learn, and contribute. Expanding on the theory put forth in the readings,
I will examine contemporary issues of access and transparency in presidential library
reform stemming from the original Presidential Libraries Act (1955) and Presidential
Records Act (1978). I will conclude with recommendations for improving this unique,
compelling, yet flawed library system. Ultimately, in order to assess the success of the
presidential library system, we must judge its labors and products against the standards of
access, authenticity, and reliability.
The Origins of Presidential Libraries
“Former presidents spend their days taking pills and dedicating libraries.”4
-Herbert Hoover, at the dedication of the Truman Library
I have already briefly mentioned what I call the static monuments of the past.
These would include the many national historic sites preserving the key moments and
places of interest in the lives of the presidents. These are primarily reserved for
presidents prior to Franklin Roosevelt, but are by no means limited to them. They often
include their birthplaces, homes, and burial sites and are typically marked by museums,
parks, or libraries. It is difficult, however to account for all dedicatory markers, as some
are no more than roadside or town square plaques, such as the one in Westfield, New
York where Lincoln met a young girl by the name of Grace Bedell who suggested he
grow his now iconic beard. This paper is concerned primarily with the modern
presidential library system operated by the Office of Presidential Libraries under the
Benjamin Hufbauer, Presidential Temples: How Memorial and Libraries Shape Public Memory
(University Press of Kansas, 2006), 8.
David Alsobrook et al., interview by Ray Suarez, “Controversy Arises Over President Bush’s Proposed
Archive Site,” NewsHour, Public Broadcasting System, February 19, 2007,
<http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/white_house/jan-june07/library_02-19.html> (March 18, 2009).
National Archives and Records Administration5 and now thirteen libraries strong (from
the Herbert Hoover Library and Museum to the George W. Bush Library still under
construction). It is important to note that the precedent for today’s presidential libraries
was set by James A. Garfield’s widow, Lucretia, who added a Memorial Library wing to
their home just years after his assassination in 1881.6 Garfield’s home is now operated
by the National Parks Service and the Western Reserve Historical Society. Established in
1916, the Rutherford B. Hayes Library and Museum in Fremont, Ohio is the oldest
presidential library, while other presidential libraries not governed by the NARA include
the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, the McKinley Memorial Library
and Museum, the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library, and the Calvin Coolidge
Presidential Library and Museum. The documents of Presidents Washington through
Coolidge are housed in the manuscript division of the Library of Congress.7
I would suggest that the Lincoln Memorial is the precursor to the modern
presidential library and museum. As the most famous of American monuments to an
individual, it has become the archetype consulted by later presidents in their attempts to
permanently etch their carefully constructed narratives into the national consciousness. It
also marks the turning point of what Hufbauer refers to as the transformation of
presidential commemoration. By the time it was dedicated in 1922, an “iconic
monument in an age of cameras, motion pictures, voice recordings, and documentary
evidence was no longer seen as a sufficient guarantor of truth—for memory itself […]
was no longer trusted to the same degree.”8 As an art historian drawn to the visual,
chiefly architectural, aspects of presidential libraries, he stops short of exploring the
archival problems that arise as a result of this transformation. A major factor for these
archival concerns is the sudden increase of records resulting from the expanding powers
of the executive office since Franklin Roosevelt. A new model of authentic
commemoration—one which could incorporate relics, the myriad of official documents,
and other archival and museum materials—would be needed to ensure a more complete
and accurate public memory. Roger Rosenblatt noted that:
Statues used to be sufficient for satisfying the self-aggrandizing impulses
of world leaders […] but what a statue used to accomplish now takes an
entire library. It must be that a library is commonly recognized as an
establishment of dignity, and therefore presidents, who always seem to
seek a place in history, find that calling their monuments libraries certifies
their historical importance.9
“National Archives and Records Administration,” The National Archives,
<http://www.archives.gov/about/laws/nara.html> (March 11, 2009).
“James A. Garfield National Historic Site,” National Parks Service, 2008, <http://www.nps.gov/jaga/>
(April 1, 2009).
“Presidential Preview,” Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, February 13, 1998,
<http://lcweb2.loc.gov/ammem/presprvw/23pres.html> (March 19, 2009).
Hufbauer, Presidential Temples, 21.
Richard J. Cox, “America’s Pyramids: Presidents and their Libraries,” Government Information Quarterly
19 (2002): 62.
A Description of the Presidential Library System
“It’s all here, the story of our time, with the bark off […] for friend and foe alike to
–Lyndon Johnson, at the dedication of his library
Currently, there are 13 presidential libraries administered by the Office of
Presidential Libraries and the National Archives and Records Administration. New
libraries must be funded and built by a private foundation and then turned over to the
NARA which pays for its support and maintenance. The presidential library system
contains over 400 million pages of textual materials, 15 million feet of film, 10 million
photographs, 100,000 hours of audio recordings, and nearly 500,000 museum objects.11
These are not libraries in the traditional sense. According to a report by the Office of
Presidential Libraries in 1986, there were only 250,000 printed books compared to over
200 million personal and presidential papers for the eight libraries at the time.12 Some
examples of unique materials include:13
the Ernest Hemingway collection of writings, objects, and photographs
a gold saber used by General William T. Sherman
Laura Ingalls Wilder’s original manuscript of Little House on the Prairie
FDR’s homemade wheelchair
a rare 1914 Rauch and Lang electric automobile
a hand-sewn flag belonging to the family of John Wilkes Booth
a 2500 year old Grecian vase
priceless gifts given by various heads of state
the artworks of numerous American artists
The following table provides information about each of the 13 libraries including the year
it was dedicated as a NARA-run library, its geographic location, its university affiliation
(if any), and additional notes pertaining to applied legislation and any policy centers,
think tanks, or philanthropic institutions associated with the library. Note that the
information is organized chronologically by the year of library dedication, not by the
president’s term in office.
University of Texas Press Release, “5/22/71, Remarks by Lyndon B. Johnson at the LBJ Library
Dedication,” Lyndon B. Johnson Library, May 22, 1971,
<http://www.lbjlib.utexas.edu/Johnson/archives.hom/speeches.hom/710522.asp> (April 1, 2009).
U.S. Senate, 107th Congress, 2nd Session, Report of the Committee on Governmental Affairs to
Accompany H.R. 577, June 11, 2002, <http://frwebgate.access.gpo.gov/cgi-
bin/getdoc.cgi?dbname=107_cong_reports&docid=f:sr160.107.pdf> (March 22, 2009), 4.
Fritz Veit, Presidential Libraries and Collections (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1987), 43.
Robert F. Hanson, “Hail to the Chiefs: Our Presidential Libraries,” Wilson Library Bulletin (April 1981).
Name of President Year of Dates of Location of University Additional Notes
Library Time in Library Affiliation
Franklin D. Roosevelt 1941 1933-1945 Hyde Park,
Harry S. Truman 1957 1945-1953 Independence, First library governed
Missouri under the 1955
Presidential Libraries Act
Dwight D. Eisenhower 1962 1953-1961 Abilene, Kansas
Herbert Hoover 1962 1929-1933 West Branch,
Lyndon B. Johnson 1971 1963-1969 Austin, Texas University of LBJ School of Public
John F. Kennedy 1979 1961-1963 Boston, University of Institute of Politics at the
Massachusetts Massachusetts JFK School of
Government at Harvard
Gerald Ford 1981 1974-1977 Ann Arbor, University of Gerald R. Ford School of
Michigan Michigan Public Policy
Jimmy Carter 1986 1977-1981 Atlanta, Loosely affiliated with
Georgia Emory University
Ronald Reagan 1991 1981-1989 Simi Valley, First library governed
California under the 1978
Presidential Record Act
and the 1986
Amendment to the
Presidential Libraries Act
George H.W. Bush 1997 1989-1993 College Station, Texas A&M
Bill Clinton 2004 1993-2001 Little Rock, University of Clinton School of Public
Arkansas Arkansas Service
Richard Nixon 2007 1969-1974 Yorba Linda, Only library governed
California under the 1974
Presidential Records and
George W. Bush  2001-2009 Dallas, Texas Southern Plans underway for the
Methodist Institute for Democracy
Site Selection and Policy Centers
Controversy over proposed sites has come to a boil most recently at Southern
Methodist University in Dallas, Texas where George W. Bush planned to build his
library. These concerns, however, are nothing new. Duke University rejected Nixon’s
papers, while students at both Stanford and the University of California at Irvine
successfully prevented Reagan’s plans.14 It is not unusual that a presidential library be
located at a university, where it might go hand-in-hand with a newly-developed
department or institute that can advance the ex-President’s domestic and global initiatives
and raise a new generation of policy makers influenced by that President’s agendas and
values. Most presidents have also developed a policy center, think tank, or philanthropic
institution to complement their libraries. Clinton accomplished this with the University
of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service. Whereas the early models like the Dwight
Eisenhower Library or the Harry Truman Library are located where the President grew
up and lived, presidents beginning with Kennedy have all attempted (some more
successful than others) to situate their libraries within large urban university centers.
Despite some of the criticisms, there is nothing menacing about this choice, which is now
advocated by the Office of Presidential Libraries: unlike the smaller, more isolated
research centers of the early libraries, these sites are profoundly dynamic and lend
themselves to greater, more sustained, access.
Critical to the understanding of the evolution of the presidential library system
and the challenges it has faced and continues to face are various acts of legislation and
executive orders. These include the Presidential Libraries Act (1955), the Presidential
Records and Materials Preservation Act (1974), the Presidential Records Act (1978), the
Amendment to the Presidential Library Act (1986), the amendments to the Presidential
Records Act (Executive Orders 13233 in 2001 and 13489 in 2009), and the Presidential
Libraries Reform Act of 2009. These acts and amendments highlight both the
expectations and concerns, allowing us to better judge the current state of the system and
better prepare for its future.
Presidential Libraries Act of 1955
In 1939, President Roosevelt pledged his records to the federal government and
began work on the construction of a museum on the grounds of his Hyde Park estate.15 In
response, Congress passed the Presidential Libraries Act in 1955. This legislation
encouraged presidents to provide the federal government with any historical materials.
The federal government may then accept “land, buildings, and equipment […] for the
purposes of creating a Presidential archival depository […] and maintain, operate, and
Alsobrook et al., 2007.
Raymond Geselbracht et al., “The Presidential Libraries Act After 50 Years,” Prologue 37 (2005),
<http://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2005/summer/preslib.html> (March 11, 2009).
protect the depository as a part of the national archives system.”16 The act allowed
presidents to privately fund and build a library or archive which in turn would be owned
by the federal government and maintained at public expense. It was estimated then that
there would be at most fifteen presidential libraries after one-hundred years and that the
federal cost of operating them would amount to $1.5 million.17 This figure could not
have been further from the truth: there would be seven libraries after just 25 years while
the budget had swelled to $42 million in 2003.18
Amendment to the Presidential Libraries Act (1986)19
This amendment was drafted in response to the growing costs of presidential
libraries, which had risen to $15 million annually by 1985, a 15 fold increase since the
mid-60’s.20 The bill attempted to limit both the cost and the size of these libraries. It
limited their size to 70,000 square feet (although Reagan only signed it into law if his
124,000 square foot library would be exempt). The law also required the private raising
of funds equal to 20% of their total cost.21 To defray costs to the NARA, this endowment
currently stands at 40%,22 further tipping the private-public balance in the direction of the
private with consequences that continue to draw criticism. Since then, however,
presidents continue to exploit loopholes that allow them to build evermore expansive
Presidential Records and Materials Preservation Act of 1974
Until Roosevelt, the loss and destruction of the presidents’ papers had been a
common occurrence. George Washington envision his own presidential library at Mount
Vernon “for the accommodation and security of my Military, Civil and private Papers,”23
but it never came to fruition. Some of his papers ended up in the Library of Congress.
Others were stored in the attic of Chief Justice John Marshall where they were destroyed
by rodents or mold.24 Many of his documents continue to circulate outside of federal
control where anything with Washington’s signature is bought up by autograph seekers.
Most of the records that document the official activities of the earlier presidents have
been lost forever. The papers of Tyler and Taylor were destroyed in the Civil War. A
fire that burned down the cabin of William Henry Harrison destroyed most of his papers.
Not all record loss was accidental: Chester Arthur burned most of his papers just before
he died.25 Many of the presidents’ families either obliged their requests to destroy their
“Presidential Libraries Act of 1955,” The National Archives, <http://www.archives.gov/presidential-
libraries/laws/1955-act.html> (March 11, 2009).
Veit, Presidential Libraries and Collections, 19.
Fred A. Bernstein, “Who Should Pay for Presidential Posterity,” New York Times, June 10, 2004, D1.
“Presidential Libraries Act of 1986,” The National Archives, <http://www.archives.gov/presidential-
libraries/laws/1986-act.html> (March 11, 2009).
Veit, Presidential Libraries and Collections, 20.
Frank L. Schick et al., Records of the Presidency: Presidential Papers and Libraries from Washington to
Reagan (Phoenix, Arizona: Oryx Press, 1989), 13-19.
“National Archives and Records Administration.”
Hufbauer, Presidential Temples, 26.
Veit, Presidential Libraries and Collections, 2.
papers or disregarded their wishes to preserve them. The reason for this is that until
1974, all presidential records were considered the private property of the outgoing
president. Franklin Roosevelt set a precedent for voluntarily giving papers over to the
federal government, although presidents would retain the right to first destroy or keep any
of them. Roosevelt secretly attempted to exercise control even from the grave by
selecting a committee to manage his papers, as “ex-presidents were under no more than a
moral obligation to participate in the system envisioned by the Presidential Libraries
All this changed during the Watergate Crisis, when both Congress and the
archivists of the Office of Presidential Libraries became concerned with improper and
extensive deliberate record destruction. The Presidential Records and Materials
Preservation Act of 197427 granted Congress the right to seize Nixon’s official materials.
Although the Nixon Library was established in 1991, its entrance into the NARA library
system was delayed as a result of decades of litigation challenging this law.28 Although
this law only pertained to Nixon’s records, were it not for the unique circumstances in
which he left office, it is possible presidential papers would have remained, to some
degree, the personal property of the office holder.
Presidential Records Act of 1978
In hopes of preventing a similar case of dishonest records management, Congress
passed the Presidential Record Act of 197829, specifying that all official Presidential and
Vice-Presidential records are the property of the federal government. Although the law
would pertain to presidents beginning with Reagan, President Carter voluntarily abided
by it. The law divides all records into two categories: presidential papers and personal
papers. The lawful management of these records would be the responsibility of the
incumbent president.30 Proposals for disposal schedules for record types must be
approved by the Archivist of the United States. Although the Freedom of Information
Act makes all records open to the public after five years, the law allows an incumbent
president to restrict access to some records for up to twelve years if:31
the information is authorized to be kept secret by an executive in the interest of
national defense or foreign policy
the information relates to presidential appointments
the records include confidential business information
the disclosure of the information would result in an unwarranted invasion of
G.H. Bennett, “Goodbye Mr. President: Presidential Libraries and Public History in the USA,” European
Journal of American Culture 22 (2003): 27.
“Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act (PRMPA) of 1974,” The National Archives,
<http://www.archives.gov/presidential-libraries/laws/1974-act.html> (March 11, 2009).
Hufbauer, Presidential Temples, 186.
“Presidential Records Act (PRA) of 1978,” The National Archives,
<http://www.archives.gov/presidential-libraries/laws/1978-act.html> (March 11, 2009).
Veit, Presidential Libraries and Collections, 12-15.
The Presidential Records Act also grants the Archivist of the United States the authority
to appoint all directors of the presidential libraries.
Amendments to the Presidential Records Act
In November 2001, George W. Bush issued Executive Order 13233,32 giving
presidents, former presidents, and their estates the power to block access to records
beyond the conditions set in the 1978 law. Because the executive order was issued at a
time when many of Reagan’s records were set for release, many critics accused the
president of suppressing information that may have been critical of members of his
administration as well as his father for their involvement in the Iran-Contra affair.33
Society of American Archivists president Steven Hensen, in a letter to Congress, wrote:
This law [PRA 1978] establishes the principle that presidential records are
the property of the United States government and that the management
and custody of, as well as access to, such records should be governed by
the Archivist of the United States, and established archival principles.34
In January 2009, Obama issued Executive Order 13489, effectively overturning the 2001
amendment and keeping presidents and former presidents from asserting broad claims of
executive privilege without adequate review by the Archivist of the United States and the
Presidential Libraries Reform Act of 200936
In recent years, there has been much controversy surrounding improper
fundraising activities for the presidential libraries. Some presidents’ administrations have
been accused of granting access or other favors in exchange for pledges of large
contributions. Clinton was accused of granting a pardon to Marc Rich for a $450,000
donation.37 A member of Ford’s chief of staff is quoted as having told a congressional
candidate, “The president would be happy to come into your district for you. All you’ll
have to do is make a $10,000 contribution to the Gerald R. Ford Museum up in
Michigan.”38 Foreign contributions are another source of concern with the Saudi
government providing upwards of $10 million to the libraries of recent presidents. This
“Executive Order 13233,” Federal Register 66 (2001),
(March 22, 2009).
Hufbauer, Presidential Temples, 186-187.
Steven Hensen, “SAA Responds to Executive Order 13233 on Presidential Papers,” Society of American
Archivists, November 6, 2001, <http://www.archivists.org/statements/stephenhorn.asp> (March 18, 2009).
“Executive Order 13489,” Federal Register 74 (2009),
<http://edocket.access.gpo.gov/2009/E9-1712.htm> (March 22, 2009).
U.S. Senate, 111th Congress, 1st Session, H.R. 36, Presidential Libraries Reform Act of 2009, January 8,
bin/getdoc.cgi?dbname=111_cong_bills&docid=f:h36rfs.txt.pdf> (March 22, 2009).
Bennett, “Goodbye Mr. President,” 23.
bill, first introduced by Representative Henry Waxman of California in 2007, is still
under review in the Senate. The bill would require the disclosure of contributions to the
incumbent president’s library of $200 or more in quarterly reports. The Archivist of the
United States would then make this information available in a searchable database (this
would include the names of donors and the amount given). The private-public status of
these libraries has created a tension between “authenticity and reproduction, between
education and entertainment,”39 between accurate history and partial, selective history. In
a speech in the House of Representatives on March 14, 2007, Rep. Murphy discussed the
need for more transparency:
Under current law, there is no requirement to disclose the names of the
donors and the amounts that they have donated, and there is no limit on
the amount that can be donated. You don't need to be a political scientist
to see the potential for abuse.40
While this bill, if passed, would bring greater transparency to the process, it does not
address the rising costs of the presidential library system. The Roosevelt library cost $8
million when adjusted for inflation.41 In comparison, the George H.W. Bush library cost
$83 million, the Clinton library cost $165 million, and the George W. Bush library’s
projected cost is anywhere between $200 and $500 million.42
Presidential Libraries as White Elephants
It is not enough to point out the seemingly self-deifying aspect of this new model
of commemoration and the danger it has on the ability to preserve a balanced narrative;
the costs also weigh heavy on the invisible builders of these ostentatious monuments.
Richard Cox, probably the most overtly critical of the presidential library system, draws a
parallel that harkens back to Roosevelt’s keen observation of Egypt’s pyramids and the
colossal desire to be remembered. Upset that the American public must pay to access
what is rightly theirs, he writes, “The original pyramids were carried on the backs of
slaves and servants in the ancient world. Their American counterparts have seemingly
become a part of the permanent public memory business, a process with no end in
sight.”43 The Office of Presidential Libraries suggests it will take roughly a century to
process all holdings for a single presidential library. The transfer of records to the NARA
is a logistical nightmare in itself, now requiring the assistance of the military over the
course of nearly six months. George W. Bush had 439,000 pounds of materials to
transfer, including 1,000 cubic feet of audio-visual materials, 27,000 cubic feet of textual
Hufbauer, Presidential Temples, 1.
Rep. Murphy, Congressional Record H2494, March 14, 2007, <http://frwebgate.access.gpo.gov/cgi-
bin/getpage.cgi?position=all&page=H2494&dbname=2007_record> (March 22, 2009).
Benjamin Hufbauer, “Presidential Libraries Have Historical Problem,” Chicago Tribune, March 3, 2008,
Opinion, <http://archives.chicagotribune.com/2008/mar/03/opinion/chi-oped0303librarymar03> (March
U.S. Senate, 110th Congress, 1st Session, Report of the Committee on Homeland Security and
Governmental Affairs to Accompany H.R. 1254, October 22, 2007, <http://frwebgate.access.gpo.gov/cgi-
bin/getdoc.cgi?dbname=110_cong_reports&docid=f:sr202.110.pdf> (March 22, 2009).
Cox, “America’s Pyramids,” 45-46.
records, 41,000 artifacts, and 100 terabytes of electronic information.44 The costs of
transferring and processing records, and staffing and maintaining the libraries are
enormous. The New York Times recently reported on the dilapidated state of FDR
Presidential Library and Museum, which is subject to flooding, asbestos, and is at the
mercy of an outdated electric system.45
An additional concern is how the archival focus has taken a back seat to other
roles these institutions play. While the archival function remains, there is pressure to turn
the library into a museum and shift the focus from research and scholarship to tourism.
In the Johnson Library, a wall of ornamented, colorful archival boxes only illustrates the
point that academic functions are eclipsed by the role of the presidential library as a
popular museum. Bennett succinctly explains this issue when he writes:
Locating the library and museum functions together has the potential to
generate awkward questions about the archival deposits. Those skeptical
about the funding of presidential libraries may eventually question
whether there is the same tendency to accentuate the positive at the
expense of the negative in the archival process. The award of grants to
researchers by the several private foundations associated with presidential
libraries could potentially offer another avenue of concern for the skeptic
who believes that the presidential library system is more interested in
myth-making than in good historical practice.46
As the expectation remains that each outgoing president will build his or her own
American pyramid, it has become painfully clear that these are not just libraries
but white elephants: their costs are beginning to exceed their usefulness.
The Future of Presidential Libraries
I have tried to demonstrate how the history of these libraries illustrates a tension
between the private and the public, and that this tension, coupled with the soaring costs of
maintaining a library for every new president, has crippled the presidential library
system. Without a complete overhaul, we may at some point do more harm than good so
long as simple commemoration continues to put accountability and authenticity at risk.
R.J. Cox, in a typical example of his sardonic wit, finds that a “modern solution to
Presidential records seems worthy of consideration, one that makes the American public
not just gaze with curiosity at the doodles of JFK in an exhibition chronicling the loss of
Camelot but in which they can see the records being used to keep our highest officials
accountable.”47 Berry sees a more central and total role of the National Archives as a
solution to the problematic “inability of the private founders and funders of the
presidential libraries […] to separate their obvious pride in ‘their’ president from the
Pacifica Chehy “Airmen Escort Presidential Papers into History,” Air Force Link, February 24, 2009,
<http://www.af.mil/news/story.asp?id=123136862> (April 1, 2009).
Nick Taylor, “Freedom From Mildew,” New York Times, July 28, 2008, Opinion,
e> (April 1, 2009).
Bennett, “Goodbye Mr. President,” 35.
Cox, “America’s Pyramids,” 66.
nation’s need for a fully accessible repository containing the entire record of an
administration, good news and bad”48 The National Archives should take a more active
role in the records as evidence, insisting on accountability and authenticity over simple
A “Museum of the Presidents”49 was a solution originally expressed in the 1986
Amendment to the Presidential Libraries Act. A centralized repository would allow
researchers to cull materials of different presidents from one repository. It would also
ease the burden on the federal government as staff and equipment are reduced. There are,
however, the costs of moving documents to D.C., the obvious litigation that would result,
and the danger of housing such priceless materials in one location. The idea of the
centralized repository favors the role of the archive and library over the museum, but has
stalled over criticisms pointing out the problems of limited storage space and the risk of
accidental total destruction. More and more, these are becoming moot points: not only
are there a growing number of born-digital presidential records, but the available
technology for preserving all digital surrogates in discrete repositories mitigates most
risks. Education and interpretation should be left to the museums, be they the privately-
funded and operated institutions already scattered across the country or the Smithsonian
Institute’s Museum of American History. A central archive that follows established best
practices promises to ensure the reliability (or completeness), authenticity, and
evidentiary integrity of presidential records and work more effectively towards the most
important aims of the presidential library system: the access to and preservation of our
collective public memory. As Cox summarized, “We have long since resolved the
question of who or what Presidential records belong to—they belong to us. Now it is
time to end the current system […] and emphasize a process protecting us and
Presidential records.”50 We should read this as a rallying call, even though it may require
the cataclysmic vision of a future president to alter this course. We should not forget,
though, the unprecedented step taken by another president at the dedication of the first
presidential library. On July 4, 1940, Franklin Roosevelt stood before a captivated crowd
and uttered these words that embody the inspiring ideas that remain at the heart of this
debate, no matter the criticism:
It seems to me that the dedication of a library is in itself an act of faith. To
bring together the records of the past and to house them in buildings where
they will be preserved for the use of men and women in the future, a
nation must believe in three things. It must believe in the past. It must
believe in the future. It must, above all, believe in the capacity of its own
people so to learn from the past that they can gain in judgment in creating
their own future.51
John Berry, “Archives or Lightning Rods? Why does controversy house U.S. presidential libraries?,”
Library Journal 112 (1987): 4.
“Presidential Libraries Act of 1986.”
Cox, “America’s Pyramids,” 67.
Hanson, “Hail to the Chiefs,” 1981.
Alsobrook, David, Beschloss, Michael, and Richard Norton Smith. Interview by Ray
Suarez. “Controversy Arises Over President Bush’s Proposed Archive Site.”
NewsHour. Public Broadcasting System. February 19, 2007.
(March 18, 2009).
Bennett, G.H. “Goodbye Mr. President: Presidential Libraries and Public History in the
USA.” European Journal of American Culture 22 (2003).
Bernstein, Fred A. “Who Should Pay for Presidential Posterity?” New York Times, June
10, 2004, D1. <http://fredbernstein.com/articles/display.asp?id=67> (March 18,
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