Letters to the Editor

Presidential Libraries—Another View

Alonzo L. Hamby, February 1992

"NCC News" in the October issue cites an evaluation of presidential libraries made by a "task force" of the National Academy of Public Administration. As summarized, the evaluation deplores the decentralization of the presidential library system as "expensive and inconvenient for scholars" and bad for sound scholarship because it encourages researchers to overemphasize the uniqueness of discrete presidential administrations.

Another issue, involving as it does matters of judgment and emphasis, may safely be left to scholars of the presidency and recent American history. Presumably, as a group they have enough sense to deal with it. Clearly, it is not a matter to be settled by any task force.

The declaration about expense and inconvenience, however, appears to avoid one central question—for whom? One wonders how many faculty and graduate students at Midwestern universities have found it more expensive and inconvenient to do research at the Hoover, Truman, or Eisenhower libraries than to travel to Washington and stay there for several days, or weeks depending on the character of their project.

A good many scholars with presidential library experience—I daresay the vast majority—are inclined to argue that the decentralization of the presidential library system is a virtue that has both quantitatively and qualitatively enhanced scholarship in the history of twentieth-century American politics. The system has been important in facilitating the development of strong graduate programs in American political history at a number of institutions outside the Northeast; one finds it hard to believe that the task force would want to reverse this happening. One doubts in addition that the centralization of presidential papers in Washington would produce more scholarship.

It may well be that an individual living a Metroliner ride away from Washington finds it inconvenient to go to West Branch or Independence or Abilene to do research on the Hoover or Truman or Eisenhower administrations. It is a least possible, however, that our fictional researcher will have a grant-in-aid from an endowment raised by a private, nonprofit institute connected to the library. That researcher will encounter a facility staffed by archivists who have an intimate knowledge of the library's collections, frequently possess many years of experience there, are capable of giving good advice, and without fail provide prompt, helpful service. Moreover, collections at the presidential libraries consist not simply of a president's manuscripts, but those of many other members of his administration, drawn together by the library's existence.

Can any reasonable person believe that the grants-in-aid, the expert archivists with long tenure, and the unified administration collections would survive centralization in Washington? The presidential library system is not perfect, but its virtues, rooted in its decentralized, regional character, have far outweighed its vices, which are largely those of the National Archives. Any proposal to create a central facility in Washington needs to pay much more attention to the likely real-world consequences than this one apparently does.

Alonzo L. Hamby, Fellow
Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
Washington, DC