Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Friday, March 02, 2007

FDR's Archival Legacy

Wrangling over the location of the George W. Bush Presidential Library has once again generated public interest in what these institutions are supposed to do. This is nothing new, of course, as every time a president prepares to leave office the matter of their library and those of other former chief executives becomes newsworthy and usually controversial. I commend to everyone interested in learning more about these institutions to read the Summer 2006 issue of the Public Historian entitled “Presidential Libraries: Programs, Policies, and the Public Interest.”

Larry J. Hackman, the former director of the Truman Library, and a tireless advocate over more than thirty years for a strong public policy role for archives and historical records programs (through a career spanning from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission to the Truman Library) states the purpose of this issue in his introduction: “I have had three main objectives for this special issue: First, to secure articles that broaden and deepen our understanding of presidential libraries. Second, to provoke discussion, especially on issues that have not received sufficient attention or have been largely avoided. And third, to provide examples for and I hope stimulate additional research and writing on the development and operation of the presidential libraries” (p. 7). From my vantage point, he has succeeded with the first and third purposes, but I am not as hopeful that these essays will generate the kind of public discussion Hackman desires. He is an optimistic believer in the power of the written word to stimulate the kind of discourse he seeks, while I think that this will only happen if we have more individuals like Hackman in leadership positions provoking others to take notice. Unfortunately, Hackman is now retired, and I see few other archival leaders with his passion and vision playing on the national level with the same kinds of interests in public policy.

There are a number of interesting essays in this volume. Lynn Scott Cochrane, presently a library director and the author of a dissertation on presidential libraries, contributes a lengthy analysis of the costs and benefits of the libraries as a policy subsystem; Sharon K. Fawcett, the current Assistant Archivist for Presidential Libraries at the National Archives, provides a historical overview of the libraries, acknowledging, without really responding to them, that there have been legitimate criticisms made about these libraries; Benjamin Hufbauer examines exhibitions in the presidential museums, drawing upon his book on the same topic; Lee Ann Potter at the National Archives describes the educational programs of these libraries; Nancy Kegan Smith and Gary M. Stern, both of the National Archives, provide a historical review of the access to presidential records made possible by the libraries, with discussion of the most famous cases challenging how these records were made available; Raymond H. Geselbracht, presently at the Truman Library, contributes a history of that library’s first half century with a candid assessment of its successes and failures; R. Bruce Craig provides a list of potential reforms that ought to be carried out in the libraries; and Hackman contributes both an introduction to the volume and a description of “better policies and practices” for these libraries. There is also a set of reviews of the exhibitions then up at the libraries by historians and other experts from outside the libraries themselves.

Scattered throughout these essays are some compelling arguments about the presidential libraries. Geselbracht, in perhaps the most candid account of a library by an insider, contributes, for example, this thought: “The history of the Truman Library can be read in different ways to suggest different outcomes for the future of presidential libraries. The simplest assumption one can derive from the library’s history is that presidential libraries will continue to be established for all presidents when they leave office.” However, he is not uncritical of what these libraries represent: “But other readings of the Truman Library’s history are not so sanguine, for if problems similar to those experienced at the Truman Library trouble other libraries and if the American people and the Congress become concerned about them, the building of new libraries could end.” (p. 73). Geselbracht identifies four problems with them – “their vagueness of purpose”; “increasing size and expense”; “reliance on private foundations”; and “denial of access to the president’s materials” (pp. 73-76). Despite these problems, he concludes that the “most obvious reading of the Truman Library’s history suggests a bright future for presidential libraries. Millions of people have benefited from the Truman Library’s programs in some way, and some of these people have experienced something so important at the library that their lives have been changed for the better. The library in recent years has shown an ability to recognize and minimize its inherent flaws, and to design programs which meet the needs of important segments of the population. The museum exhibits that have been created during the last ten years are founded on a sophisticated understanding of the elements of an educating experience for people of different ages and backgrounds, and the memorializing function that perhaps inevitably creeps into museum exhibits has been minimized. The library’s programs for K through 12 students, almost all of them designed in the last ten years, are responsive to state and national history standards and are serving many thousands of students and their teachers every year. The library’s private partner, the Harry S. Truman Library Institute, has shared in the process of institutional regeneration that has occurred in recent years, becoming much more involved in library programs than in past years, and much more effective in providing resources in areas not adequately funded by the government” (pp. 76-77).

This special issue of the Public Historian does not constitute the typical laudatory or uncritical assessment of presidential libraries that we have seen published in different venues through the years. Hackman himself, in seeking to put together the issue, is concerned about the presidential libraries and their accountability to the American citizens: “Despite the expanding number of libraries and their growing audiences, no systematic surveys and analyses have been undertaken of the programs of presidential libraries that aim to serve the public. Except for recent surveys of educational programs, there is no solid description of the scope and nature of public programs offered by presidential libraries and their collaborators and no ready basis for understanding how they are developed and who influences what is done and how. Neither has an assessment been undertaken by independent experts as to program quality in any area and no solid data gathered on what the public seeks from these programs or how it views program quality or content. The public, their elected representatives, and other interested parties have lacked a sound basis upon which to understand the operations as well as the value and performance of these important programs. A sustained program of independent expert analysis on particular program areas is much to be desired” (p. 169). Evidence does not support, however, that this kind of sustained or independent analysis will happen.

Even when some of the authors write defensively of the activities of these libraries, others counter them within the journal issue. For example, Smith and Stern conclude the following about how the libraries enable access to presidential records: “With all the complexities and challenges in processing presidential records, the United States still makes its presidential records available much more quickly than other democratic nations. Many nations have absolute thirty-year rules, before which no public access is provided. No other nation actively makes its highest-level policy documents available for review in such a short time frame” (p. 115). Even though it seems a bit of a stretch to suggest that these libraries ought to be graded on some kind of curve among democratic nations, it is more important that others, a few pages away, contradict such conclusions. Bruce Craig, in his essay, is far more critical about these institutions represent: “To me, trying to represent the libraries as a more cohesive unified system is not nearly as important a priority as is the need to provide a strategic refocusing on Franklin Roosevelt’s original intent for creating the first government run presidential library in 1939—establishing a repository to preserve the evidence of his presidency for the benefit of future generations. The primary legislative mission and purpose of a presidential library is archival. The Office of Presidential Libraries’ primary goal should be simple and straightforward: to insure that the presidential documentary record is preserved and then made available to the public as quickly as possible. That is not happening now” (p. 83).

Whatever one’s opinion about presidential libraries, this set of essays will be useful for helping one re-evaluate just what these institutions ought to be or if they should be continued.