The Manse in Staunton

The Manse in Staunton

Presidential libraries pulled me into the world of archives and records management.  I have visited the exhibit side of two president’s libraries — Jimmy Carter and Abraham Lincoln.  And I had the opportunity to research at Woodrow Wilson’s library in Staunton, Virginia, and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s library in Hyde Park, New York.  With a background in history, I have always loved learning new stories about our presidents, and in my studies at Duke, I was trained by historians who embrace the value of giving voice to the foot soldiers as well as the standard bearers, so I am predisposed to look at primary sources as mechanisms for discovering new layers of our historical record.

The presidential libraries are complicated as archival endeavors.  Before 1938, the papers of American presidents were seen as private property, so the presidents (or their families) were left with the decision of how to handle these records after the end of a presidency.  A few, such as John Adams and Rutherford B. Hayes, deposited their papers in libraries.  Some, such as George Washington, died before they could carry out any plan, so their heirs were in a position to discard or sell the papers at their discretion.  Some papers fell victim to fires, such as those that destroyed the papers of Andrew Jackson at the Hermitage or John Tyler in Richmond.  A few former presidents like Calvin Coolidge chose to destroy at least some of their papers.

FDR Presidential Library

FDR Presidential Library

But FDR had a vision of working at his library after the end of his presidency, so he began the process in 1938 and in 1941 dedicated his library.  Of course, FDR would never see life after the presidency, as he died in office in 1945, but he did set an important precedent for his successors.  Jimmy Carter is arguably one of the most successful examples of combining his archive with a center for his post-presidency initiatives.

Under the 1955 Presidential Libraries Act, FDR’s predecessor as well as his four successors established libraries, with the presidents voluntarily agreeing to donate to the national government their papers as well as the land and building in which they would be housed and overseen by the National Archives and Records Administration.  In the wake of the Watergate scandal, Congress passed the 1978 Presidential Records Act, which defined presidential records as those created or received by the president or his staff “in the course of conducting activities which relate to or have an effect upon the carrying out of constitutional, statutory, or other official or ceremonial duties of the President.”

Two of the most significant debates currently surrounding the presidential libraries have to do with the level of access granted to the records and whether it is sustainable in the long-term to continue having separate libraries for each president (not to mention the hardships this system creates for researchers who must visit more than one library found in widely divergent locales).  Records in the presidential libraries are processed individually, in order to weigh issues of privacy and national security, which obviously adds time to their processing.  But because the Presidential Records Act declared presidential records public, this brings them under the auspices of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), so the so-called PRA archives wind up having to organize their processing according to FOIA requests rather than proceeding in an orderly, series-by-series manner.  (For more information on FOIA, the Clinton Library has a web page that explains its applications to presidential records.)  The presidential library that has been most active in digitizing records for online access is the JFK Library.  And regarding the classification of documents that may limit their availability, President Obama issued an executive order in 2009 that has helped to simplify both the classification and declassification of government records.

As for creating separate repositories for each president, despite the complications and redundancies this system presents, I don’t see it changing any time soon.  The fundraising necessary to construct such edifices is easier when a president can tap his friends and supporters to contribute to the shaping of his legacy — which would not be the case with a combined repository.  Which brings up the the final issue regarding presidential libraries.  Because they serve as both repositories of records and museums of a presidency, there is an unusual balancing act that goes on.  (In fact, these two sides are separate in their management, with NARA operating the archive for the presidents from Herbert Hoover through George W. Bush and private organizations operating the museums and facilities.)  Fine arts professor Benjamin Hufbauer has written a book about the presidential libraries entitled Presidential Temples (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2005), in which he argues that “the presidential library is a symptom of the striking expansion of presidential authority that has occurred during an era when the United States has become the most powerful country in the world” (3).  He goes on to suggest that they have become a part of our civil religion and ultimately concludes with an explanation of how these libraries help to shape our shared memory:

“Commemoration is an intercessor between death and societal memory.  As living memory of a president and first lady passes away, those who would commemorate them must help them make the transformation into the realms of history and societal memory, which is the object of the final campaign.  Presidential libraries try to create the sense that their subjects, if not immortal, are still relevant, and that visitors can acquire through a tourist experience living memory of the dead.  One of the most important goals of a presidential library, using documents, displays, audio, film, educational role-playing, and interactive video, is to transform presidential labor into myth, giving it seemingly transcendent value” (198).

Archivists have a predisposition to appreciate enduring value, given the groundwork provided by Theodore Schellenberg and his protégés.  So while I definitely support attempts to make the exhibits at presidential museums be as accurate as possible — such as the revisions to the Watergate exhibit after the Nixon Library came under the NARA umbrella — I think I’m comfortable with the grandiosity that accompanies presidential libraries, so long as public access to these records is preserved.

[For a more in-depth look at the issue of accessing records at the presidential libraries, you can read my paper here.]