Thursday, April 09, 2009

The Future of Presidential Libraries

NARA seeks input into the development of alternative models for Presidential Libraries. Read the Request for Input here
and submit to:

As someone who has visited ALL of the presidential libraries operated by the National Archives and Records Administration and as someone who has conducted both graduate and post-graduate research in seven of these diverse institutions, I think it is important to explain how important location is to each of these institutions and to NARA as an entity.

When President Harry Truman worked within his presidential administration to provide for a presidential library system that would benefit not only himself but also his successors, he clearly envisioned a tangible explanation available for all American citizens to visit and explore. Knowing that not every citizen can afford to visit the nation's capital city even once in their lifetimes, this Missouri native knew that allowing presidents to choose locations throughout the United States for their presidential libraries would allow more citizens from all over the world access to these important components of our nation's heritage.

I disagree with the assertion that a 'central location' would be beneficial. Not only would we lose the character that Texas brings to the LBJ and Bush Presidential Libraries and the Boston metro area brings to the Kennedy Library, we would also lose the expertise that archivists focusing on one collection bring to the table. Their expertise is quite simply essential to not only finding the appropriate records for a particular research interest but in understanding them. While there is a place for supervisory archivists who manage much more diverse collections at the National Archives locations in DC and Maryland and the regional branches throughout the nation, we would lose a piece of our history if we changed our approach to the presidential libraries.

First, I applaud the possibility of asking the foundation to provide more funding for the initial building as well as past legislation to limit the size of future presidential libraries. Electronic records will make this much more feasible over the next few administrations. And, I know firsthand from seeing them myself and from talking to directors of presidential libraries that the presidential gifts collections are sometimes the most cumbersome and physically largest components to manage. It would be a common sense approach to allow the foundation to also oversee the "care and feeding" of these historical artifacts.

Second, presidential museums are often more than controversial, especially during their initial iteration and/or while the president is still alive, but they are an important component of understanding the man from Michigan or the man from Kansas who became president. Having said that, however, it would be a more suitable alternative to separate the museums from the presidential libraries than the move the entire presidential records component to Washington, DC.

Third, if the only option is to move the presidential records to a central location, I would highly encourage NARA to look at locating that 'central repository' in a cost-efficient and climate-controlled atmosphere location in the nation's heartland. The caves surrounding the Kansas City metro area (both Kansas and Missouri) provide numerous possibilities here. Furthermore, this location would be more accessible to more of the nation's citizens, whether they are researchers or just interested members of the public.

Teaching American History grants have provided funding to take teachers and undergraduate and graduate students to presidential libraries across the nation and they continually comment on better understanding "the man" who was president by actually seeing where he "came from". This importance of this tangible component of history needing "place" to actually occur cannot be overstated. Washington, DC, is a wonderful place but also not accessible and much more expensive than visiting the locations where most of the presidential libraries are now located.

As a member of the Advisory Committee to the Electronic Records Archives, I wholeheartedly support the most efficient ways to organize presidential records that are already primarily electronic but also ensuring that all of the nation's citizens have a "people" connection to those records. The digital world has drastically changed my entire life but people are still a key to understanding the world around us.

Finally, and most importantly, presidential libraries should be processed systematically and not primarily through FOIA requests as they are now. Imagine going into a collection of millions of records and having to look for the needles in the haystacks. It goes back to a basic rule of scientific management, handle any particular piece of paper (or electronic record) as little as possible rather than having to go through it several times to figure out whether or not it is relevant to a particular lawsuit. Why do specialized segments of American society get first access to the records? Instead, it should be left to the expertise of experienced archivists to complete the initial steps of the processing of these diverse presidential records before FOIA is allowed to be activated to get at what may be some of the more controversial records.

Respectfully submitted,

Dr. Kelly A. Woestman
H-Net President and
Professor of History and History Education Director
Pittsburg (KS) State University

Labels: , ,

GREAT comment!
Thanks, Sherm. Hopefully more than a few people will go to the NARA website and submit comments.
Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Subscribe to Posts [Atom]