Presidential Libraries of the United States

George Bush Library

George [H. W.] Bush Library, Texas A&M University

Now that the George W. Bush Library and Museum has opened, every former President from Herbert Hoover onward has a presidential library established in his name.

For all the snarky humor about whether the new Bush library has anything but picture books, a presidential library isn’t a library in the normal sense of the term. Whatever books it has comprise only an insignificant part of its holdings. (President Bush has written a book, so his library certainly includes that one!)

Although they are called presidential libraries, they are more museum and archive than library. The Office of Presidential Libraries of the National Archives and Records Administration now oversees 13 presidential libraries.

The idea of a presidential library

During his second term, Franklin D. Roosevelt noticed that he and his staff had created a vast amount of material. He knew that some previous presidential papers had been lost, destroyed, ruined by poor storage, or even sold to private collectors for a profit.

He consulted with important historians. On their advice, he raised private funds to establish a permanent repository for all the various documentation of his time in office, then, in 1939 turned it over to federal government for the National Archives to operate.

Harry Truman decided to establish his own library in 1950. Congress passed the Presidential Libraries Act in 1955 to encourage each subsequent President to follow Roosevelt’s example. Herbert Hoover, the only living former President at the time, also established a presidential library.

At that time, the papers of a President were considered his personal property, but Presidential Records Act of 1978 established that all documentation of the constitutional, statutory, and ceremonial duties of the President is the property of the Federal Government.  The Presidential Libraries Act of 1986 further codifies the private endowments that partially offset the cost of maintaining the libraries.

Other acts of Congress and executive orders also govern presidential libraries. For example, President Clinton issued Executive Order 12958, which requires a review of classified material more than 25 years old.

Besides legislation directly related to preservation of presidential documents, the Freedom of Information Act established the right of any person to request access to documents of any federal agency, which, of course, includes the National Archives.

The Library of Congress houses many pre-Hoover collections, but others are widely dispersed among other libraries, historical societies, and private collections.

The contents and functions of presidential libraries

Modern presidential libraries provide access both for the curiosity of visitors and as a resource for serious historical research. Compiling and preserving that material presents great challenges, both in terms of the sheer volume of material and the variety of media that it represents.

Our earliest Presidents mostly left papers, either printed or in manuscript, and various artifacts (their desk, inkwell, official portraits, etc.). Scholars also need newspaper articles and other writings by people other than the President and his advisors.

By Lincoln’s time, photographs became an important kind of documentation. Photography represents new challenges, both for collection, preservation, and maintenance. Already, by the time of the Hoover administration, recordings of speeches had been added to the mix. Now Presidential libraries also collect and maintain video recordings, phone conversations, emails, web pages, and presence on social media.

Presidential libraries exist not to glorify a particular President, but to provide full documentation of his time in office. According to Mark Updegrove, director of the LBJ library, “It is not up to us to direct history and tell people what to think, but we do want them to know what he did and how it impacts your life.  What you think about that is up to you,”

Johnson’s library includes a life-like animatron of President Johnson that greets visitors. It also includes more than 640 hours of recorded telephone conversations.

Warren Finch, director of the George [Herbert Walker] Bush library, notes, “We feel that is one of our key missions in our museums and educational programs is to talk about civics, how the US constitution works, how the government works in practice,”

The new George W. Bush Library and Museum collection comprises

  • More than 70 million pages of textual materials from the Bush presidency
  • Official records from Bush’s service as Governor of Texas
  • Archived White House website
  • 375,000 still photographs
  • 46,000 audio and video tapes
  • 80 terabytes of electronic records, including almost 4 million photographs, both from the White House Photo Archive and a September 11, 2001 photo gallery. Other electronic records include more than 200 million email messages sent from or received by the White House email system, material from shared network drives used by various White House offices, and all records related to scheduling and appointments.
  • Artifacts, including 43,000 gifts given to President and Mrs. Bush both by American citizens and foreigners, such as heads of state.

Archiving of Bush’s White House records began as soon as he left office. It has taken this long to process them and to build a museum and library to house and display them. According to the Freedom of Information Act, non-classified material will be ready for public inspection after January 20, 2014.

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Sources:
Learn about the Presidential Libraries / National Archives
US Presidential Libraries Contribute to Research, Education / Voice of America
George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum
Photo credit: Public domain, from Wikimedia Commons


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