Alabama Historian Talks About Presidents and Their Libraries

After a long and remarkable career as an archivist, at Montgomery, Washington, DC and then at the Carter, Bush “41” and William J. Clinton presidential libraries, David Alsobrook retired in 2007 to his native Alabama.

In 2017 he published his award-winning study set in a part of town where his family’s roots were: “Southside: Eufaula’s Cotton Mill Village and Its People, 1890-1945”. Here he chronicles the economic, racial and social history of the city and examines the class structure of this small but representative place.

Alsobrook examines in detail how Donald Comer, son of the Governor, expressed capitalist paternalism in the most humane way imaginable, setting up for his workers not only the company store, but health insurance , the baseball team, a scout troop, a company group, a community center, mortgages, etc.

He was president of the Alabama Historical Association, 2017-18.

Alsobrook died in October 2021, but not before finishing this account of his personal life with his wife, Ellen and, more importantly here, his professional life.

Alsobrook was an archivist. He cared about the correct pronunciation. The place where the papers reside is the archives. The adjective is archival, but the practitioner is the archivist, with the stress on the first syllable.

He might never have become an archivist, except that in the early 1970s, in history as well as in English and French and in many humanities, there were more doctorates. than academic jobs.

The opening chapters of “Presidential Archivist: A Memoir,” dealing with his training in Auburn University’s new archival training program and his work at the Montgomery State Archives, are detailed, insightful, and non-animated. Gracious to a fault, Alsobrook praises who he can and omits no one who has been kind to him. We get lists of Auburn teachers and other students.

A young researcher, J. Mills Thornton III, receives praise as does Edwin C. Bridges; both had great careers.

History comes alive, as you might expect, when Alsobrook goes to work in Washington, DC, at the National Archives. He is involved with the Gerald Ford papers, the Nixon papers, and then the Carter White House, getting to know many of America’s most powerful figures firsthand.

When Jimmy Carter was not re-elected in 1980, Alsobrook launched the Carter Presidential Materials “project” – the name for collecting and moving presidential papers, in this case to an abandoned U.S. Post Office annex in Atlanta.

His team took control of 27 million pages of documents, 1.5 million photographs and 30,000 artifacts. There were 19 semi-trailer trucks full.

Then they get to work: evaluation, conservation, arrangement and description. Alsobrook was with the Carter papers for 10 years.

An unusual aspect of this work was that Carter was less interested in a museum and library that would facilitate research into his career than in Carter Center projects, such as global health and housing.

In 1992, Alsobrook went to work on George H. W. Bush’s papers – 36 million pages of documents, 1 million photos and 40,000 museum artifacts, all transferred to Houston.

We learn in this section that it is NOT a good idea to have a presidential library on a college campus. There have been turf disputes and disputes with Texas A&M.

A joke was also generated – don’t let Alsobrook work on Clinton’s White House papers. Its two previous presidents had lost after one term.

Nevertheless, he continued to run the Clinton Library in Little Rock, Arkansas, and it is a gem, architecturally and for research. It also revitalized part of downtown, as Clinton hoped.

Although always sensible, Alsobrook offers close reviews of his bosses. The Bushes were more than friendly: “They warmly welcomed us into their large extended family and essentially became our surrogate parents.”

Jimmy Carter was a compilation of virtues – ethics, intelligence, the order of an engineer – but could have a ruthless nature, a dry sense of humor, to say the least, and often used a “didactic preacher mode” with his staff.

Bill Clinton had great focus, a powerful intellect and tireless curiosity and in fact “generally seemed to be the smartest person in the room”.

Clinton’s eight-year White House generated 77 million pages, 1.95 million photos and 75,000 artifacts.

The whole thing weighed 625 tons.

Don Noble’s latest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson and eleven other Alabama authors.

“Presidential Archivist: A Memoir”

Author: David E. Alsobrook

Publisher: Mercer University Press

Pages: 320

Price: $29 (hardcover)

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