A Brief History of American Presidential Libraries

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How well do you know the American presidents and their links with the literary world? Many of you, I’m sure, know that many presidents have written books, especially autobiographies.

Most recent include My life by Bill Clinton, Decision points by George HW Bush, An american life by Ronald Reagan, A busy life: reflections at nineties by Jimmy Carter, and A promised land by Barack Obama.

Bill Clinton even wrote two fiction books with James Patterson. And Jimmy Carter has written dozens of books on a variety of topics, such as faith and aging.

But there is more than books. Another legacy they leave behind – regardless of their political party – are presidential libraries.

Not all presidents have libraries, and not all are in the same place, or even in Washington, DC, the nation’s capital. They are based in places important to presidents, such as their home states. Open to the public, they include documents, photos, and speech footage – but we’ll get to that later.

Let’s first see how the Presidential Libraries were created.

The acts that structured the presidential libraries

Presidential Libraries are relevant institutions because they house important aspects of United States history. They are overseen by the Office of Presidential Libraries of the National Archives and Records Administration.

It was President Franklin D. Roosevelt who started the tradition of presidential libraries in 1939. This was after many important presidential files had been lost or destroyed before him, according to government records. Then, in 1950, President Harry S. Truman also established a Presidential Library and the Presidential Libraries Act of 1955 was put in place. This did not make the creation of a library mandatory, but encouraged the practice.

1978 was an important year for the development of presidential libraries. That year, the Presidential Records Act made certain presidential records belong to the US government; the same is true for some of the vice-presidents’ files. Eight years later, the 1986 Presidential Library Law was approved, concerning the funding of libraries.

Many presidential libraries are currently closed or operate at different times due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, there are currently 15 presidential libraries accessible online.

The 4 most recent libraries built

1. The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library

This library is located in Southern California – Simi Valley, to be exact. The location makes sense given that Reagan was once Governor of California – and was a California film and television actor in his youth, most notably while chairing the Screen Actors Guild. The library’s textual archive is currently being digitized, which is a big project, in addition to the audiovisual material and speeches.

2. The George HW Bush Library and Museum

The 41st President’s Library is located in College Station, east Texas; it is part of the Texas A&M University campus. Bush Sr. was a congressman from Texas for over a decade before he was elected president.

A research institution, it is similar to other presidential libraries and covers the personal and political life of Bush, including his time as vice president. The archives include more than 44 million recordings, 800 hours of audio and 2 million photos.

3. The William J. Clinton Library and Museum

This library and museum focuses on the presidency of Bill Clinton. Its library and museum are part of the Clinton Presidential Center and Park in Little Rock, Arkansas; it was there that he served as governor of Arkansas prior to his presidency. According to the website, you can find “archival collections and research facilities”. Among these materials are “documents, photographs, videos and interactive stations …”

4. The George W. Bush Library and Museum

Located in Dallas, Texas, it is the 43rd President’s Library. The Bush family has long-standing ties to the state, and before becoming president, this Bush was governor of Texas. Its galleries include photos and other material related to the September 11, 2011 attacks, an annual White House lawn tee-ball event, and social events at the White House. Research is done at the institution, and you can also find information on the Bush family, including First Lady Laura Bush.

The current library

And finally, the construction of President Barack Obama’s Presidential Library has started, and it’s being built in Chicago. Originally from Hawaii, President Obama has spent much of his life in Chicago. It was in this city that he worked as a community organizer, lecturer at the law school of the University of Chicago, then was elected senator from Illinois. He subsequently ran for president.

You can visit the library website here. Interestingly, its presidential library will be the most digitized yet.

According to the website, “an estimated 95% of the Obama administration’s presidential records were born digital, such as photos, videos, word processing documents, tweets, emails, and other forms. digital currents. NARA and the Obama Foundation will work together to digitize unclassified textual presidential documents to create a digital archive.

To learn more about US presidents, check out 44 Presidential Biographies That May Interest You; a play on presidential poetry; and 15 books from and about the current presidential family.

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