Department of Manuscripts and Archives: The Obama Library

January 19, 2014, 1:03 pm


Should the location of a presidential library be a political decision or a travel decision? Photo credit.

It seems that national policy making may be more or less over until 2017 or beyond, so let’s turn to legacy: where should the Barack Obama Presidential Library and Museum be established?

Since it was Franklin Delano Roosevelt who began the tradition, by turning over his own home to preserving his legacy, this is a relatively modern problem: most presidents don’t actually have their own libraries. George Washington just got one last fall at Mount Vernon, his former estate in Virginia. Calvin Coolidge donated his collection to the Forbes Library in Northampton, MA, beginning in 1920, making it the only public library in the United States to be charged with preserving a presidential collection.

The location of the library signifies a president’s ties to place, underlining that place’s contribution to the making of national history itself. Think about the statement it makes about twentieth century political history that, for example, five of the Presidents since Roosevelt (three Democrats, two Republicans) have their Presidential libraries in the south and that three of them — LBJ, Bush 41 and Bush 43 — are in Texas.

Hence the competition for the privilege of raising and spending lots of money to get one of these archival gems in your own town can be fierce (at least one university recently refused a presidential library too.) Currently there seem to be three locations in the mix for the Obama Library: New York City, where Columbia University, with a seventeen acre site at its disposal, is behind the bid; Chicago, where the University of Chicago, Chicago State University and the University of Illinois at Chicago have been in the mix; and Honolulu, where Robert Perkinson, a professor of American Studies at the University of Hawaii is leading an aggressive, long-shot challenge to put the Obama library on seven, sun-drenched, ocean front acres. Harvard’s experience with the John F. Kennedy Library, in which community members’ opposition to being evicted from their own homes led to moving it to its current (and totally gorgeous) waterfront location on Columbia Point, could easily be duplicated in Morningside Heights, where Columbia has a history of difficult development fights. Problems are likely to crop up in Hawaii as well, since many beautiful locations, even if they are not sacred spaces for indigenous Hawaiian people, and many are, invariably raise legal challenges about the appropriation and use of Native lands after 1898.

Chicago has the strongest claim, in my view. But before I continue I want to reassure the students at the University of Chicago that should the Obama Library be attached to their campus it will not compromise their “principles of free inquiry and critical analysis,” a worry recently expressed by Andrew Young in the Maroon. Nor does any young champion of dispassionate scholarship have to be concerned that the archive will be “carefully chosen and presented from the perspective of what the President and his political allies want us to understand as the truth.” This is possibly one of the more ill informed views about the nature of a federal archive I have ever heard, not to mention its impact on vulnerable young minds. I suggest the history department at Chicago immediately mount a course on Presidential archives in response to this beautifully written but wrong-headed opinion piece.

Let me emphasize: a Presidential Library is a National Archives facility, operated by professional archivists, curators, and public historians with advanced degrees and professional standards. Presidents and their staffs are also subject to certain rules that pertain to preserving, not bowdlerizing, the records of the federal government. They don’t get to pick and choose what is kept and what is thrown away. Even redaction and classification is a process, with its own rules; it also provides the power of appeal by researchers (it’s called the Freedom of Information Act.). Now it is true that at the Ronald Reagan Library I have heard the volunteer docents present some rather odd narratives about the Reagan presidency, and exhibits trend towards the politically neutral/sympathetic view of presidents. But the archives are the archives, and that doesn’t change.

Because the archives, their preservation and their use, are a central function of these libraries, where a Presidential Library is established is an important question. Can researchers get there? Are there reasonable accommodations for a prolonged stay? Depending on where a Presidential Library is located it is more, or less, accessible to ordinary researchers and journalists.  The Gerald R. Ford Library, in Ann Arbor, awards small, competitive grants to bring researchers to the collection, as do several other presidential libraries. But the awards are intended to defray, not cover, the costs of research, and they are only given to a fraction of the researchers who use these facilities every year. Here we have the major objection to Honolulu: it is very far away (a little under six hours from Los Angeles.) This would make it an inconvenient and, more importantly, very expensive, trip for most United States-based researchers.*

The building of palatial Presidential libraries since the Reagan administration (where it is, by the way, a delight to work, not just because of the wonderful staff but because of the breathtaking views) has obscured the key function of these facilities: they should be used, and useful. They are, moreover, crucial to the ongoing process of a functioning democracy. The more inaccessible a library is, the less likely that young scholars, who have the least resources available to them, but often the newest ideas about what ought to be written, will use them. Furthermore, journalists and legal researchers often need quick access: when John Roberts was nominated to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 2005, materials on his work in the Reagan Administration were immediately made available to those who were working on the hearings as well as those responsible to the public for providing an accurate record of Roberts’ history as a jurist.

Obama’s ties to Chicago, its vibrant multiracial and international geographies, and the likelihood that Obama will also return there at the end of his second term, also creates an opportunity to replicate Jimmy Carter’s strategy for his own library, in which it became a home base for a post-presidential policy agenda. Furthermore Chicago is central: it takes no more than three hours to get there from anywhere in the United States except Alaska and Hawaii, and the travel expenses are comparatively light.

For all these reasons, I vote Chicago.


*An earlier version of this post listed only the Ford Library as having a competitive grants program. Several colleagues wrote in to say that most do: thanks in particular to Christopher M. Nichols and Leah M. Wright-Rigeur. Also, the editors at The Maroon point out that The piece opposing the Obama Library was not an editorial but an opinion piece.

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