By Richard Hallman, M.Ln.
As librarians, we naturally follow the ups and downs of libraries. Are budgets flat-lining? Are we having a mini-boom? If you build it, will they come? One kind of library seems certain to continue enjoying a slow and steady growth curve: the presidential library. We’ll probably keep electing presidents, and plans for new presidential libraries will probably continue to come along every four to eight years.
Many presidential libraries and museums have been built over the years, mostly with funding from foundations and private citizens. Herbert Hoover and every president since has had an official library. Richard Nixon has two libraries, one in Maryland and one in California. President Obama’s library is still in the works, but will be located in Chicago.
The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) manages all of the official presidential libraries, but there’s always a foundation involved in the development phase—conflicting agendas are not uncommon. This Politico article about how the Obama library will be different explains the complicated NARA-presidential library relationship much better than I can. Click here for article.
Why do we have presidential libraries? In addition to being museums and tourist attractions, they are repositories of all sorts of historic documents that are of interest to researchers. They can serve as a base from which a former president chooses to do whatever he (and, maybe someday, she) wants to do in his (or her) post-presidential life. NARA is most concerned about preserving presidential history and documents, but others involved may be more concerned with managing the president’s legacy and public perceptions.
Presidential libraries share a number of common features. In addition to the customary official displays, there are usually permanent and temporary exhibits about the presidency, history, and the First Lady. There are artifacts that you can look at but not touch, and often a replica of the Oval Office. This article reviews some of the more exotic holdings of these specialty libraries. Click here for article.
A visit to a presidential library could be a good way to get some ideas about new displays in your own library. You may not have the same budget to work with, but at least ideas are free. Politicians are prolific book writers, so perhaps there’s an opportunity to feature some tomes from local pols. What about displaying some non-literary items? Does your library have any kind of special collection? Maybe there are artifacts you could feature in a display case.
Let’s look at a few titles about presidential libraries:
- Presidential Libraries as Performance: Curating American Character from Herbert Hoover to George W. Bush
- Presidential Temples: How Memorials and Libraries Shape Public Memory
Presidents get to decide where their own libraries are built. Texas has the most presidential libraries with three. President Johnson and both Bushes have Lone Star State libraries. California is home to two, representing Nixon and Reagan. All the other states with presidential libraries are only home to one each for now, but one would assume that a Trump library will arise somewhere in New York someday, joining the Franklin Delano Roosevelt library, which is in Hyde Park.
The Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum, conveniently located near my house in Atlanta, has beautiful gardens, frequently hosts author events, and is even home to a Saturday morning farmers market. They do not they sell peanuts.
Take some time to visit a presidential library in person if you get a chance. And if you don’t find one nearby, this site from the National Archives includes a guide to all of the presidential libraries and museums. It details their holdings and programs, provides links to their websites, and provides virtual visits. Click here for website.
Budding collection developer Richard Hallman finally set aside his dreams of becoming a rock star, movie director, and/or famous novelist to embrace librarianship. Click here for more.