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The real National Treasure: US presidential libraries

I’ve watched the film National Treasure twenty more times than I probably needed to, but I can’t ignore my fascination with the history of the US presidents. In the movie, the directors place a strong emphasis on the importance of historical documents and artifacts, and a working knowledge of the importance and content of these items, to help the main protagonists complete a centuries-long treasure hunt. And it led me to wonder: where are these documents now? Who has access to them, and what is the public allowed, and not allowed, to see?

For queries of this kind, I inevitably turned to the one place with all the answers: the library. But not just any library. In honor of Presidents’ Day on 20 February, I interviewed Melissa Giller, Chief Marketing Officer for the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Institute in Simi Valley, California, and Alan Lowe, Executive Director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois, to learn more about these institutions’ contents, purpose, and significance in the library community.

Who actually builds them?

“So it’s a bit different based on each library,” explained Alan Lowe. Most presidential libraries constructed from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s time in office to the upcoming Barack Obama Presidential Library in Chicago are built and run by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

But other libraries, such as the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, are sometimes created by the statein this case, the state of Illinoisand often begin as historical state libraries or museums that combine with or expand into presidential libraries. Such is the case with the Lincoln library. Additionally, some are run by other institutions, such as the Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library in Mississippi, run by Mississippi State University.

Plans to build the library begin about two years prior to the president leaving office. With more recent libraries, the president for whom the library is built involves himself heavily in the planning, design, and curation of the building. This was especially true for George H. W. Bush’s library, where both he and Mrs Bush played an active role in the creation of the library. “They were on site a lot,” says Lowe, who worked at the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library in Dallas, Texas before coming to the Lincoln library, “and it was extraordinarily helpful. Who wouldn’t want the former president to be there when designing the library dedicated to him and his time in office?”

Though Abraham Lincoln was obviously not present for the creation of his library, built a little over 11 years ago, the library strives to preserve his memory in both form and function.

Photo of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library. "Museum Night (2)" photo by Hannah Ross. Used with permission.
Photo of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library. “Museum Night (2)” photo by Hannah Ross. Used with permission.

Why are they built?

“The presidency is an important institution in this country and to the rest of the world, and we need to tell the story of the men who occupied that office,” says Lowe.

These libraries not only preserve the raw materials that constitute our nation’s history, but also teach those who visit about the tumultuous course our nation and its people have endured. Presidential libraries engage patrons by offering educational speakers and programs at the library, and positioning themselves as active cultural institutions that become part of the local community.

And their wealth of knowledge extends far beyond the reign of any one president. “The Library and Museum are a reflection of the president’s life,” Giller tells me, “not just the presidency, but their whole life.”

The Ronald Reagan Library showcases several large, special exhibitsat least two per yearthat bring visitors into the library. “We do this to be a resource for our communityto be more than a presidential library,” Giller notes. “For example, we have brought in exhibitions on Abraham Lincoln, the Cold War, the Vatican, and even baseball.”

What’s really inside these libraries?

“A presidential library is actually two things,” Giller describes. “It’s a museum that anyone can come and visit and tour through…and it is a library.” The library is, more often than not, the private side of the establishment, where the archives are held. The curation is for the actual museum. The museum covers the president’s life before becoming president, his time during office, post-administration, and if the president is deceased, then any history related to him after his death.

At the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum, one might be so lucky to catch a glimpse of certain famous historical artifacts, such as a handwritten copy of the Gettysburg address in Lincoln’s handwriting, an original printing of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by Lincoln, a copy of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, the bloody gloves Lincoln wore the night he was assassinated, and the stove pipe hat he wore, “where you can still see the thumb print on it from when he would tip his hat to people,” Lowe informs me.

“So in terms of what goes into our library versus a private library…you can’t compare,” Giller says of the Ronald Reagan President Library. “We don’t have books on display.”

At Lincoln, they have a permanent exhibit and special exhibit, and it takes time to determine which artifacts to show in each section. Since many of their pieces no longer contain information that could be a threat to national security, their primary concern with these items is conservation and the ability to streamline the research process for those using these artifacts as evidential or study materials.

“My main goal since I got here,” Lowe declared, “is making sure we have the right research rooms set up to help researchers and educators to get the most out of their time here.”

Photo of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Photo "reagan campus6" courtesy of The Reagan Foundation. Used with permission.
Photo of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Photo “reagan campus6” courtesy of The Reagan Foundation. Used with permission.

Who can access this content, who cannot, and why?

Several documents are closed for national security, but as a researcher, an individual can still say he or she wants to see a certain document due to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), and then an archivist takes document and determines who has interest in classification status of document. This person then makes an appointment with the archives department to visit the Research Library, and if the documents get cleared for use, the author would sit in the research room and the archivist would bring them the papers, documents, or photos they needed to see.

Any person, whether a United States citizen or not, can make a FOIA request, but just because the request is made does not mean it will be granted.

There are exceptions to this rule, however. Highly classified documents or artifacts may not be accessed even after the individual exercises their right to the FOIA, due to matters of national security, or if the documents are deemed classified by certain organizations, such as the CIA.

Otherwise, the artifacts and documents on display for the general public are available for anyone to view on a trip to the library and museum.

Why do we need presidential libraries?

“Presidential libraries become a part of history,” Giller explains, “It’s a way for visitors to see items from the various presidencies up closeto learn more about the person behind the president.”

Lowe agrees, adding that “it’s all in the eye of the beholder, how you classify a presidential library, and why you need them,” Lowe says, “but I like to classify them by three categories: do they have the museum component, do they have educational and public programs, and do they have collections?”

There is also an economic impact created by these institutions. They are a great provider of jobs and income, Lowe informs me, and many cities report having a positive economic impact when presidential library built.

“These institutions are so unique,” Lowe emphasizes, “and each institution takes on the flavor of its community and of its president.”

If you house all these documents in a warehouse in some central location, say Washington DC, he says, you lose half of the educational component to the libraries. At the Lincoln library, because it resides where Lincoln himself once did, anyone can read a document about his house, and then walk right to where Lincoln lived in no time. “It feels like Lincoln is still walking the streets here because the library is so centric to the city.”

Presidential libraries serve to encapsulate the historic, economic, and potentially personal impact each president has made on the United States as a nation and the people who call it home. Without these libraries, a piece of history might be lost, or even worse, forgotten.

Featured image credit: Photo “NationalTreasureFilmSet (1)” by Sean Devine. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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