If your mental image of a library starts and stops with your public library or university library, then you probably have never visited a presidential library. You may even think that a presidential library is just a room full of books, documents, and a few photos or portraits. That is what I thought until I visited the FDR Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, NY. I had no idea at the time of the significance of this particular presidential library or the role that FDR himself played in the modern presidential library. There was hardly a book in sight, but the 12,000 square foot space was filled with exhibits, many interactive, and all manner of memorabilia from his large collections, not only telling the story of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s time in office but also the events going on in the country at that time. It was a fascinating few hours.
As I was to learn later, FDR was actually the driving force behind the modern system of presidential libraries. From the earliest days of the nation, most of the documents accumulated during a president’s term in office were considered his personal property and went with him when he left office. Often they were divided up among family, friends, political colleagues, libraries, or historical societies, often ending up in basements, attics, and abandoned buildings. Some found their way to the Library of Congress, but many items were lost to time, others to deterioration resulting from poor storage conditions. FDR, however, believed that these presidential papers belonged to the people and needed to be properly preserved, so he donated all his things, including thousands of items of memorabilia, to the National Archives, that was established while he was in office. He also donated a portion of his estate for the building of the library. His vision became the basis for future presidential libraries which were built with private funds, maintained by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), and open to the public. Every president since has followed in FDR’s footsteps, with a presidential library operated in this fashion.
The Presidential Library System was officially established in 1955 with the passage of the Presidential Library Act, but unbelievably, it was not until 1978 that the Presidential Records Act was passed that changed the legal ownership for official presidential records from private to public. Today there are thirteen libraries in the Presidential Library System, including Barack Obama’s library which has not yet opened, and one for FDR’s predecessor, Herbert Hoover, who also decided to preserve his legacy in this way.
Presidential libraries are part library and part museum, providing a fascinating walk through the history and the events that affected the nation at that time. Besides the museum portion, which is all that most visitors see, another component of the presidential library is the Research Library. This is where the primary source books, documents, photos, letters, and other papers are kept, carefully preserved in archival boxes. Many secondary sources related to this president are available for use as well. This room is open to the public but usually requires a special visitor’s badge to enter the room. There visitors are free to use the resources and even make copies, though unlike regular libraries, nothing can leave that room. Most people using this room are doing serious research and desired teems can be retrieved upon request from storage by archivists, who are always available to help. Fortunately, thousands of items have been digitized, an ongoing process, and are available from the library website, making these documents accessible to even more of the public.
So what about all the presidents prior to Hoover, surely some of them have presidential libraries? This is true though they are not operated by NARA, and often open years after the president leaves office or has even died. They may occupy free standing buildings, or be housed in a public library or historical society. Most have a research library, as well, that is open to the public but may require an appointment. The documents in these libraries are mostly secondary sources while the surviving important documents are housed in the National Archives. Nevertheless, many include exhibits and artifacts that bring the presidency and the times to life. As with the presidential libraries in the system, many things have been digitized providing easier access.
So next time you have the opportunity, be sure to visit one of the Presidential Libraries or do a virtual 360 degree tour, available from most of the library websites. Much more information about these libraries can be found at the links below:
Learn about Presidential Libraries (National Archives website)