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The Future of Presidential Libraries

By Ed O'Keefe

The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston. (AP)

Updated 2:37 p.m. ET

Presidential libraries and museums draw big crowds to otherwise less-than familiar places. Just ask folks in Abilene, Kansas., Little Rock, Ark., or Yorba Linda, Calif., how life might be different if Presidents Eisenhower, Clinton and Nixon hadn't built their monuments to self where they now stand.

Congress wants to cut taxpayer costs associated with presidential libraries and archives however, and a new report (PDF) by the National Archives and Records Administration released Wednesday proposed five possible alternatives. It also warned that social networking tools will complicate future presidential record-keeping.

The Obama administration's reliance on Web 2.0 and social networking technologies "creates a challenge not yet met by NARA or the rest of government, both in implementation of his directives and in the management of the electronic records created through these initiatives," according to the report.

(The report was released the day before the reopening of the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum in Atlanta. The five month renovation cost $10 million.)

Digitizing presidential records is a costly and time-consuming process and the government needs to think hard about how to do it, the report said. Indeed, technical glitches contributed to the Archive's difficulty in obtaining Bush administration records late last year. The Obama White House is in the process of hiring a contractor to automatically archive all of its online activity as it occurs.

The National Archives works with private presidential library foundations to operate the facilities and archive their historical records. Congress first addressed the issue of presidential libraries with the Presidential Libraries Act in 1955. The 1978 Presidential Records Act mandated that a presidential transfer his records to the National Archives at the end of his term. Last year lawmakers approved the Presidential Historical Records Preservation Act, part of which required the Archives to explore ways to cut costs, to provide more rapid access to presidential materials and improve the preservation process.

The report proposes five possible changes to how the government and private presidential library foundations own and operate presidential records and museums:

Model 1: The current model (in which both the archival depository and museum are donated to NARA by the Library Foundation), with revisions to the endowment calculation that would require an endowment based on the total size of the building. This model also explores a new basis for the charter between NARA and the Library Foundations.
Model 2: The Presidential archival depository leased by the Government, with a separate Museum managed by the Foundation.
Model 3: The Presidential archival depository donated to NARA by the Foundation, a university, or other non-Federal entity, with a separate Museum managed by the Foundation.
Model 4: A centralized Presidential archival depository funded and managed by NARA, with no museum. Presidential Foundations may build and manage their own museums in a location of their choice.
Model 5: A centralized Presidential archival depository funded and managed by NARA and a Museum of the Presidency built and staffed by NARA. Private funds through a separate Foundation or through other fund-raising would be required to build and sustain the exhibits and the educational and public programs of the Museum.

The report admits "a tension" between the charge to cut costs and the speeding up of access records, while also improving the record-keeping process. Some of the proposed alternatives might cut costs while hampering preservation efforts or slowing access to records. Adopting any of the proposed changes might also inadvertently increase government costs, the report said.

A Senate subcommittee will hold hearings on the report at a later date.

Read the full report then leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

By Ed O'Keefe  | October 1, 2009; 11:04 AM ET
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There should be a sixth model.Eliminate all Federal Support for Presidential Libraries.Let the former Presidents fund there own libraries if they want one.

Posted by: rmosco | October 1, 2009 11:22 PM | Report abuse

@rmosco: Eliminating Presidential Libraries altogether would not eliminate the governmentt's cost of housing the records somewhere. Nor is there any point to former Presidents funding their own Libraries as private repositories because they wouldn't have an archival compoment as for as their White Houe records are concerned. White House records for the most part are federal property. (The exception is those records that are purely political. But everything related to a President's constitutional, statutory, and ceremonial functions -- that is, his actions as chief executive -- is public rather than private property.)

That means the government has legal title to the presidential records as well as the responsibility for storing, preserving, processing and making releasable portions available for public research. That is why the models examine how the museum component should fit in with the archival, if at all, rather than elimination of the archival component. The archival component always will be governmental. It's the same principle as the one under which the permanent records of executive branch departments and agencies go to the National Archives under a different law.

Posted by: Former_Archivist | October 2, 2009 6:34 AM | Report abuse

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