Ask Civics 101: Why Do We Have Presidential Libraries?
Today we’re answering a question from a listener who asks: Why do we have Presidential Libraries?
Imagine if your life was turned into a library - an archive of all things you. Your papers, emails, and tweets would be preserved and displayed. Visitors would come to see exhibits of your shining achievements, like learning how to bake sourdough, your collection of rare state quarters, and well-lit photographs of your dog. Researchers would comb through your text messages to pinpoint the reasoning behind your decisions.
But, there is a catch. Your mistakes, failures, and gaffes are also preserved in the library. That’s a real conundrum that our Commander-in-Chief faces after their time in office.
Presidential libraries haven’t always been a thing. A president’s papers and other records of their daily activities were considered the president’s property, and it was expected that the president would take them along when leaving office. Besides, it’s rude to leave your desk cluttered for the next occupant to clean up.
But presidential papers are not just doodled notes, dead plants, and a moldy coffee mug (even when they are). They are also historical materials that document the president’s time in office. Before presidential libraries, though, these records weren’t preserved in any standard fashion, so records were lost, damaged, sold, stolen, and destroyed.
In 1939, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was not about to let his records meet the same fate. He was an amateur historian, and he knew that his records were valuable for both research and the preservation of his legacy. He stated:
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 to learn from the past, that they can gain in judgment in creating their own future.
He donated his papers to the federal government and gave over a portion of his private estate at Hyde Park in New York for the construction of a library and museum. He asked the National Archives to take over the management of the materials.
Critics alleged that FDR intended to build a monument to himself using taxpayer money. After all, he did want to display his model ship collection, which is not relevant to his activities as president. But FDR was determined, even referring to the project as his “baby.” After all, a library dedicated to yourself is a great way to ensure your legacy is seen in the best light possible.
In 1955, Congress passed the Presidential Libraries Act that established a system of using private funds to build and public funds to maintain the libraries. The act encouraged other presidents to donate their materials and make them available to the public.
There are 14 official Presidential Libraries spanning from President Hoover to President Obama, all part of the Presidential Library system. There are libraries for presidents outside of the Presidential Library system, often operated by private foundations or historical societies, like the libraries of Abraham Lincoln, Rutherford B. Hayes, and James Garfield. You can peruse many of these libraries online to access virtual tours and troves of documents. Don’t neglect to check out the photo exhibit of President Obama's dogs, Bo and Sunny.
The size and scope of the libraries varies. Lyndon Baines Johnson has a six-story museum with a complete replica of the Oval Office on the top floor. A fan favorite with museum visitors is the Reagan Library and its Marine One helicopter and presidential motorcade.
Some exhibits have skewed history to cast their subjects in a more favorable light. The former Watergate exhibit at the Nixon Library incorrectly described Nixon’s removal as a “coup.” An unnamed scholar argued that Presidential Libraries are like “temples that shape public memory...and tend to morph presidential history into myth.”
The future of Presidential Libraries is digital. The Obama Presidential Library isn’t yet a brick-and-mortar building. Instead, unclassified documents will be made available online. The Obama Foundation is building a museum with private funds so that physical objects with special value can be visited and enjoyed.