This 2010 image from the Pittsburgh Post-Ghezett by Rob Rogers illustrates how failures and disappointment from one administration get passed on to the next. Rogers counts on his readers expectation that presidential libraries are sites of commemoration and not designed for deep political and policy inquiry. In ironic fashion he points to the public dialogue these buildings could evoke, but are rarely given the chance to do so.
Presidential libraries and museums are contemporary inventions notorious for obfuscating the historical truths found in their archives and for forwarding a presidential and political agenda while diluting controversy, moments of uncertainty, failure, and criticism. For example, displays in Ronald Reagan’s presidential library did not mention the Iran-Contra scandal even as it held the documents about those events in its archives. And most famously, Nixon’s library was built as a political tool for the former president and his political allies to mend his public image. The architecture and historical displays of presidential library have great potential to provide nuance and transparency to the Office of the Presidency. But in the balance of private and public interest, historically, presidential libraries have leaned toward the personal agenda of presidential legacy.
Currently there are thirteen Presidential Libraries. The first presidential library was designed and built as a gift to the American public by Franklin D. Roosevelt in upstate New York near his home town. The library was a repository of all the papers related to FDR’s four terms as President and his previous service in public life, but the first displays of the museum were idiosyncratically focused on gifts from adoring constituents and world leaders. There was little mention of political achievements like the New Deal and, more importantly, the internment of 110,000 Japanese Americans during WWII went unaddressed entirely.
The establishment of FDRs Library set a precedent that lead to the Presidential Libraries Act of 1955 (PLA) that encouraged presidents to donate their papers to the National Archives and established that the libraries would be built by private funds and maintained with public dollars (The Presidential Libraries Act of 1986 reduced the cost of library maintenance by establishing private endowments related to the size of the libraries). Before the 1955 PLA Act the papers generated by a president’s administration were considered private material of the President and many documents of previous administrations are held in private and university collections spread across the country. The PLA Act ensures that the American public has access to the documents generated over the course of a presidency in a single place.
Even with the PLA in place access to documents are restricted for up to five years after a president leaves office. A president can also assert executive privileges to seal documents related to national security and personal deliberation, among other categories, from the public for up to 12 years after leaving office. Since the presidential library is the final holding site of all materials generated by an administration several presidents have issued executive orders tweaking the level of transparency allowed. Just like the buildings and displays themselves, the laws that describe the collection and release of information is a balance of public and private interest (that is often conflated with national interest). In contrast the Presidential Library Project will create a space of inquiry about the Obama Presidency offering ambiguous, nuanced, multi-narrative, personal, and community based interpretations and audience experiences.