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Online Only: What the Proposed Virtual Obama Presidential Library Means for Historians

Seth Denbo, March 2018

A rendering of the planned Obama Presidential Center in Chicago, Illinois. The center will not include a library for the study of the papers of the Obama administration. The Obama FoundationIn January of this year, more than 100 University of Chicago faculty, including over 20 members of the history department, signed a letter of concern regarding the proposed location of the future Obama Presidential Center. As the letter argued, building the center in Jackson Park, on Chicago’s South Side, would unnecessarily develop historic parkland and not “provide the promised development or economic benefits to the neighborhoods.” Professor of history at Chicago and former AHA president Jan Goldstein, who signed the letter, said that many felt “disappointment” at the “the tendency of the [Obama] Foundation to push plans and make decisions without consulting the community.”

This is not the first time that the Obama Foundation, the charitable body responsible for funding, building, and operating the Obama Presidential Center, has attracted controversy. Last spring the foundation announced that the center would not include a library for the study of the papers of the Obama administration. The site plans include a museum, space for public programs, a community center, and outdoor recreation areas, but no research facility. Instead, the Obama Presidential Library will be virtual.

To put this in wider context, every president since Franklin Roosevelt has built a library housing the records of his administration. This break from tradition by the Obama Foundation followed an agreement with the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) that the foundation would fund digitization of all unclassified papers of the administration, with NARA subsequently providing access to the papers via the web.

It remains to be seen, however, whether this arrangement will serve the needs of historians and other scholars. The vastness of the archives of modern administrations demands new forms of access and means of discovery. Digitizing the administration’s records will serve a wide audience, connect printed records with born-digital ones, and allow for new means of exploring and interacting with the sources. But presidential libraries foster communities of researchers, and their archivists possess invaluable knowledge of the collections. State-of-the-art digital collections can be accessed globally, but this model also creates impediments.

The vastness of the archives of modern administrations demands new forms of access and means of discovery.

The precedent for presidential libraries was established in 1939, when Roosevelt donated his archives to the federal government and asked NARA to run his library. When his successors did the same, Congress passed the Presidential Libraries Act in 1955 to establish a system of privately built but federally maintained institutions modeled on the Roosevelt library. In 1978, the Presidential Records Act made materials created by presidential administrations as part of their fulfillment of official duties the property of the US government. When a president leaves office now, custody of the records is automatically transferred over to NARA and the Archivist of the United States. Private foundations help build the libraries and continue to offer financial support and advice after NARA assumes responsibility for operation and maintenance. Thirteen libraries now make up NARA’s presidential libraries system; libraries for presidents before Hoover are not part of this system.

As privately funded entities, presidential libraries and museums have cultural and financial interests in lauding their namesakes. Anthony Clark, author of The Last Campaign (2015), noted in Politico earlier this year that “presidential libraries are perfect examples of just how far presidents will go to control their own legacies.” The LBJ Foundation’s website, for example, describes its goal as providing “an ongoing legacy for President Johnson’s accomplishments and his vision for our nation.” NARA’s mandate, on the other hand, is to provide impartial access to presidential records and to preserve them. These competing interests have sometimes caused tension between presidential libraries and NARA. In the case of the Nixon library especially, differences at times erupted into open, newsworthy acrimony. By not building a physical archival repository that researchers can visit, the Obama Foundation is divorcing the traditional presidential library’s museum and memory functions from its need to provide services for scholarship.

Digitizing the Obama administration’s paper records, however, will be neither cheap nor easy, likely costing tens of millions of dollars. In addition, NARA will have to address major infrastructural concerns about how it will provide access to the vast collection of records from the administration. In addition to paper records, recent presidential administrations have created terabytes of born-digital records. The Obama administration alone handed 300 million e-mails and over 500 million digital files to NARA. NARA is also preserving the administration’s tweets, Snapchat postings, Salesforce documents, and more. While NARA has devoted a number of resources to managing the complexity and immensity of the task of archiving born-digital files, it is unclear what web-based access to records on this scale would look like.

The Obama Foundation won’t be the first presidential library to digitize and provide access to paper records on the web. The Roosevelt library provides digital access to its collections through a “virtual research room” called FRANKLIN. The library has an “ongoing and ambitious digitization program,” and adds digital content continually. Using FRANKLIN, scholars can browse and search through 800,000 pages of archival documents and thousands of photographs. But rather than rethinking the library’s collections for a digital audience, FRANKLIN organizes digital records according to the logic of the original physical archive. While this works for a collection the size of FRANKLIN, modern digital presidential records will require an entirely different approach. The size of the Obama administration’s digital collections means that more complex and robust systems of access will be required. And with millions of dollars committed to the task, the Obama Foundation and NARA have an opportunity to rethink the way scholars and the general public experience and use the materials.

The challenge of preserving and providing access to these records is paralleled by the problems of trying to do research in such a vast archive. Dan Cohen, former head of the Digital Public Library of America, argues that “Digitization of the archive can enable entirely new forms of research that will help surface new topics and ideas. Merely searching 300 million e-mail messages from the eight years of the Obama administration will require new techniques.”

With no actual materials on site at the Obama Presidential Center, NARA staff will not be located in Chicago.

Digital-only access to the Obama administration records has several other implications for scholars. With no actual materials on site at the Obama Presidential Center, NARA staff will not be located in Chicago, but instead will work at the remote facility where the records will be stored. For scholars conducting research on the Obama administration, not having the option to travel to a library to access collections is a problem. Without a place to bring researchers with common interests together and allow interaction between archivists and scholars, some historians think that scholarship will suffer.

David Nelson (California Lutheran Univ.), for example, recalls finding the expertise of the archivists at the Eisenhower library invaluable while doing research for his book on Mormons in Nazi Germany: they “knew which collections could serve my purpose, something that could not always be discerned from the sometimes skimpy descriptions of the various collections.” Similarly, Martha Hodes (New York Univ.) noted that working with the Nixon library staff offered her “a multitude of documents” she wouldn’t otherwise have found. Presidential libraries also foster community through such activities as the weekly brown-bag history seminars at the Eisenhower library or the document analysis workshops for educators at the Carter library. With no collections on site, the Obama Presidential Center is relinquishing this function.

Jim Gardner, former executive for legislative archives, presidential libraries, and museum services at NARA, expressed concern that the Obama Foundation is setting a precedent that will encourage other libraries to move toward independence. Gardner fears that this could lead to “not just no more libraries, but erosion within the system.” It would be a great loss, said Gardner, because the libraries are places “where you can engage the American people in their own history.”

So far, however, no other libraries appear to be following the Obama Presidential Center’s example. On November 30, 2017, Mississippi State University opened a new $10 million addition to its library to house the Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library. Like the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library Museum in Staunton, Virginia, the Grant library is not part of the NARA system; its archives are private. The new institution includes selections from Grant’s papers, as well as material culture exhibits. Even as the Obama Foundation and NARA look to pioneer a new kind of library, some are content with taking a more traditional approach to preserving and providing access to the records of past presidents.

But the scale of the holdings of a 19th-century president such as Grant is dwarfed by that of a 21st-century administration such as Obama’s. Cohen views the vastness of this archive as necessitating digital access, which “can be much more democratic.” “And the research community,” he adds, “for better or worse, can be much larger and distributed across the globe.” The Obama Foundation’s effort to bring together the digital and printed archival records of the administration into one vast web-based resource will inevitably transform the way historians do research on the modern presidency. It is now up to the foundation and NARA to ensure that the promised digital archive serves the needs of researchers from around the globe.

Seth Denbo is director of scholarly communication and digital initiatives at the AHA. He tweets @seth_denbo.


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