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Presidents and Libraries | The Nation

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Presidents and Libraries

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Although the presidential library is now as natural a part of our national trove of civic rituals and commemorations as the Pledge of Allegiance, it is, like the pledge, a fairly new one. The first presidential library was FDR’s in Hyde Park, New York. Based on his own sketches, it opened in 1941, one year before the pledge was adopted by Congress, not long after the completion of the Lincoln Memorial and while the Jefferson was under construction.

About the Author

Michael Sorkin
Michael Sorkin, The Nation’s architecture critic, is the author of numerous books on architecture and is also the...

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The Roosevelt library established a series of precedents that have endured. First, the president himself is, in effect, the author of his own memorial. Second, the project is built with private funds and then conveyed to the care of the National Archives. Third, every president gets one. Fourth, the president initially curates its holdings and materials. And finally, its location is completely discretionary; there are no presidential libraries in the nation’s capital. 

The thirteen presidential libraries (Hoover, envying Roosevelt’s, built his out of sequence in 1962) are part of the panoply of memorializations for the chief executive, including birthplaces, boyhood homes, ancestral mansions and holiday spots, not to mention airports, cultural centers and other civic structures. Presidents rated distinguished (Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR and, eventually, Eisenhower) are honored with “pure” memorials in the vicinity of the National Mall. But the presidential library quickly became an executive custom, and each version to date has expanded on a basic formula. The main component is the archive, and these have seen an exponential expansion in size, from the 17 million documents in the 40,000-square-foot Roosevelt Library to the 78 million in Clinton’s 153,000-square-foot “Bridge to the 21st Century.” These massive deposits of paper are now joined by countless terabytes of digital data.

From the start, too, a museum has been part of the parti. These have grown from modest collections of memorabilia and presidential swag (Carter’s museum includes a portrait of George Washington woven into a Persian carpet, an unfortunate gift from the shah of Iran) to include trinkets as large as the decommissioned Air Force One installed at the Reagan library in California. Another staple is a reproduction of the Oval Office, occasionally at slightly reduced dimensions. Every presidential museum has one, save two: Nixon’s, which reproduces the Lincoln Sitting Room instead, and Hoover’s. Perhaps the most striking of these is at the LBJ library, where it is built at 7/8 scale in order to fit into its new home at the University of Texas at Austin, which nonetheless had to have part of its roof blown out to accommodate the height of the room. Johnson used to work in the simulacrum: at its reduced size, it surely increased his own apparent dimensions. The Oval Office has also been reproduced unofficially countless times, including in the house of Tampa millionaires Tom and June Simpson and in the lobby of the San Francisco digital start-up GitHub. One observes the emptying of the signifier.

Johnson’s library—which is the most architecturally distinguished of a largely mediocre lot—also expanded the remit and tenor of the institution by being the first to be located on a university campus and to include a school of public affairs as part of its program. This was at once an important expansion of purpose and LBJ’s riposte to the much-resented hegemony of Eastern institutions in the training of high-level men and women of affairs. This pattern was repeated by both Presidents Bush and by Bill Clinton and Gerald Ford. (Nixon and Reagan were rebuffed in their attempts to find universities that would accommodate them.) Johnson might have been frustrated that the mother of all these centers is the Kennedy School at Harvard. And vigorous ex-presidents have also used their libraries as the sites for their own ongoing philanthropic and political activities, most prominently Clinton and Carter, whose initiatives continue to be consequential.

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This idea of a presidential library as a place for doing good and not simply facilitating scholarship or the ossified appreciation of (or apologetics for) term-time achievements seems particularly relevant in the case of Barack Obama, who will leave office at the ripe old age of 55. He will surely continue to work for equity, justice and peace through a variety of means as he continues his trajectory of public service. However, his deliberations over the potential site for his library bring up another question of service: How could its construction leverage social and environmental transformation? Indeed, President Obama has the opportunity to return to his roots as a community organizer via the infusion of the capital, construction, energy and purpose his presidential center will represent. He should seize the moment to further transform the nature of the institution to suit the contours of his own sensibility, shaking it from the dogmatic slumber of its own creeping Disneyfication, be it play-acting decision-making at George W. Bush’s branch (invade Iraq!) or the life-size statues of Golda Meir and Anwar Sadat at Nixon’s.

Obama’s choices for a location appear to have been narrowed down to Honolulu and several sites in Chicago. Chicago is clearly to be preferred. Not simply is it the city where the Obamas will presumably live post-presidency, but it is where Obama made his first deep contributions in public service and the place to which he returned to begin and advance his political mission. More, the neighborhoods bruited as choices in Chicago (half a dozen have appeared on one list or another) might all strongly benefit from the injection of institutional activity and investment. Although there are appealing arguments for several of these possibilities, far and away the best choice would be Woodlawn, on the city’s South Side; several large vacant sites on 63rd Street most perfectly fit the bill.

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