Why Do Presidents Get Libraries?
Opening a presidential library is now a rite of passage for those who held our nation’s highest office. On Wednesday May 3, the Obama Administration released the first concept designs depicting the Obama Presidential Center, which is planned for Chicago’s South Side.
As Condé Nast Traveler reports, the library will hold more than just books. The design, envisioned by husband-and-wife architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, includes classrooms, an auditorium, a restaurant, a museum, and a public garden. Like the presidential libraries that came before it, it will also be used to archive records from Barack Obama’s presidency.
Obama will become one of 14 former presidents with libraries managed by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). In 1955, Congress passed the Presidential Libraries Act that laid the groundwork for former presidents to donate any “papers, documents, or other historical materials” of theirs to be held in a “presidential archival repository.”
The act gained added significance after Nixon’s Watergate scandal highlighted the importance of transparency between the president and the people. That incident led to the Presidential Records Act of 1978, which states that most presidential documents must be made public within five years of the president leaving office. Today those documents are largely held in presidential libraries, where anyone can access them.
Before Herbert Hoover established the first official presidential library in 1962, there were others with the same idea. The presidential library technically originated with Rutherford B. Hayes, when his son opened one to hold his records in 1912. Abraham Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson also have presidential libraries that aren’t recognized by the 1955 law.
Former president Barack Obama’s library will be serve the public in more ways than one: Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel believes the project will stimulate the economies of the neighborhoods surrounding its location in Jackson Park. The campus will also be a place for community members to gather and learn. The Obama Center is scheduled to open in 2021.