A Presidential Legacy

Last month, the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum opened in Dallas, Texas. While it’s called a library, it is not a place where you would check out the latest bestseller. A presidential library is more like an archive of documents, and a museum of photographs and other important items from each term of the Executive Office of the United States.

U.S. presidents laugh together

Photo Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
Presidents Carter, Clinton, Obama, and Bush at the opening of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum grand opening.

Presidential Library History

In 1939, the 32nd president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was still in office when he decided to donate his papers, books and the memorabilia he had collected in office to the federal government. He believed that these items were an important part of history and should be accessible to the public. Before this time, these documents were considered private property. Some made their way into the Library of Congress, but others were burned or lost, or remained in the possession of family members who did with them as they pleased. Roosevelt chose to locate his library on the grounds of his hometown estate in Hyde Park, New York.

The next president, Harry Truman, decided this was a great idea and followed suit. Then in 1955, Congress made an official law, called the Presidential Libraries Act of 1955, that “encouraged” future presidents to donate their presidential materials to be preserved. Twenty-three years later, Congress passed the Presidential Records Act of 1978, that officially made those materials the property of the U.S. government. The Presidential Libraries Act of 1986, made significant changes to how the libraries were established, including the requirement of a private endowment (money raised separately from federal funds). Today, the libraries are run as a collective network through the Office of Presidential Libraries, which is a part of the federal National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

Many Libraries to Choose From

To learn more about the history of presidential libraries, visit the National Archives and Records Administration site dedicated to the presidential libraries.From this page you can then access the individual Web sites of the presidential libraries that have been built.

There are currently thirteen former presidents who have official libraries overseen by NARA: Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and now, George W. Bush. Each library has a vastly different architecture and contains a wide-variety of collected personal and professional pieces. Many include a full-scale replica of the Oval Office as it was when the president was in office.

About the Newest Presidential Library

The George W. Bush presidential center is located on the campus of the Southern Methodist University. It includes a library, museum and policy institute. There are more than 70 million pages of paper records, 200 million emails, 4 million photographs and 43,000 artifacts, including a piece of steel from the World Trade Center bombing site and a container of “chads,” the infamous Florida punch card ballots that played a large role in the 2000 presidential election. At the April 25th dedication in Dallas, President Obama joined the four living former presidents in making remarks before a crowd of 10,000. He avoided hot-button topics like the Iraq War and the economy, instead praising former President Bush for leading bipartisanship in education reform and for his successful efforts in combating AIDS in Africa.

Dig Deeper. Do research on at least three presidential libraries. How are they similar in how they are organized or what they offer? How are they different? Which would you be most interested in visiting? Why?