A Brief History of Presidential Libraries

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images / Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The modern presidential library is more than a roadside attraction. It’s a multifaceted venue where interested parties can thumb through the archives and gaze upon the personal effects of former commanders-in-chief. Many have put some bewilderingly fascinating items on display, from the coconut shell that saved JFK’s life to a pair of “I Like Ike” pantyhose. Cited as “living memorials,” presidential libraries are now designed by world-class architects and tend to come with steep price tags—the two newest ones, for example, cost over $160 million apiece.

By comparison, the earliest presidential libraries were rather modest. The history of these places began over a century ago, when Rutherford B. Hayes’s family struck a trend-setting deal with their home state: In 1873, a pre-presidency Hayes moved into a secluded estate known as "Spiegel Grove" in Fremont, Ohio. And it was to this quiet abode that he returned after his one-term presidency ended on March 4, 1881. When Hayes passed away 12 years later, he was buried on the grounds.

In 1912, the former president's son, Colonel Webb C. Hayes, deeded the property to the Buckeye State. Then he handed over thousands of important documents from his father’s political and military career to the Ohio Historical Society. The Colonel’s gifts came with two key stipulations: First, he insisted that his family be allowed to continue living on the premises at Spiegel Grove. Additionally, he wanted the state of Ohio to put together a library and museum that would be dedicated to the memory of his late father.

The state happily complied. On May 30, 1916—Memorial Day—a new facility called the Hayes Memorial opened up just a stone’s throw away from Spiegel Grove. A combination museum/library, it was designed to house the president’s archives and a selection of his belongings, including Hayes's 12,000-volume personal library. Altogether, these items took up so much space that the building had to be extended just a few years later. Hayes’s descendants finally moved out of Spiegel Grove in 1965, at which point the historic home opened its doors to the public.

It was decided that the private documents of President Hayes ought to be made accessible to anyone and everyone who might wish to look through them. That choice has been an absolute boon to U.S. history buffs. Visit Spiegel Grove today, and you can freely examine every book and letter in the library’s collection (although some of the more fragile items must be retrieved from a closed stacks section by a member of the staff). Back in the early 20th century, this was a radical notion. At the time, the archives of an outgoing commander-in-chief were regarded as his personal property. Over time, many a presidential paper trail was either divided up between multiple parties or, in a few cases, destroyed. The Zachary Taylor collection literally went up in smoke when Union soldiers occupied his son’s home in 1862. And then there’s the case of Chester A. Arthur who, on the day before his death in 1886, personally burned numerous private documents.

Spiegel Grove // Image courtesy of Kean Collection/Getty Images

Webb Hayes and Ohio’s government deserve a great deal of credit for seeing America’s first presidential library through. However, the concept didn’t begin to spread until it was embraced by Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

An avid history buff, the 32nd president recognized that the growing mountains of personal papers, correspondences, and pamphlets he’d accumulated over the course of his political life would be invaluable to future historians. Inspired by Hayes and Spiegel Grove, Roosevelt began making plans for a presidential library of his own [PDF].

On December 10, 1938, FDR announced that such a place was in the works and that it would soon be built on his family’s land in Hyde Park, New York. At a press conference, the then-president spoke at great length about what he called “probably the largest collection of original source material of almost anybody over the last quarter of a century.... I do not wish to break [these papers] up ... It is my desire that they be kept as a whole and intact in their original condition, available to scholars of the future in one definite locality.” The building that Roosevelt had in mind would also have some personal knickknacks on display, including his beloved miniature ship collection.

Even before the official announcement, FDR gleefully micro-managed almost every aspect of the library's creation. Early in 1937, he sketched a plan that bore a very close resemblance to the finished product. Roosevelt also helped his Hyde Park staff organize the papers and memorabilia he was constantly dropping off. Although it was being funded privately, Roosevelt decided very early on that the federal government would operate his library after its completion.

FDR’s critics denounced the library as an exercise in narcissism. Newspaperman John T. Flynn called it a “Yankee pyramid,” while one congressman protested that “Only an egocentric maniac would have the nerve to ask for such a measure.” Despite these charges, Congress passed new chartering legislation for the library in July 1939. That November, construction began.

On June 30, 1941, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum held its dedication ceremony. Addressing a small crowd, the president said, “The dedication of a library is in itself an act of faith. To bring together the records of the past and to house them in buildings where they will be preserved for the use of men and women in the future, a nation must believe in three things. It must believe in the past. It must believe in the future. It must, above all, believe in the capacity of its own people so to learn from the past that they can gain in judgment in creating their own future.”

Roosevelt’s successor chose to follow in his footsteps. In May 1955, ground was broken on Harry S. Truman’s privately funded presidential library. Three months later, Congress passed the Presidential Libraries Act of 1955. This piece of legislation specifically authorized the General Services Administration (GSA) to accept any “papers, documents, or other historical materials ” that an ex-president might offer to be used for a future “Presidential archival repository.” The Act spawned a whole system of libraries. Like Roosevelt’s, these were built with (mostly) private funds, then turned over to the federal government, which covers their operating costs.

Modern presidential libraries basically fall into one of two categories: 13 of them—namely, those that commemorate every president from Herbert Hoover to George W. Bush—are overseen by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), in accordance with that 1955 Act. (Hoover opened his in 1962.)

Pete Souza via Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

However, there are also several outliers that have no association with the NARA and, accordingly, don’t receive any federal funds. This category includes the presidential libraries of Hayes, Abraham Lincoln, and Woodrow Wilson—all of which rely on foundations, private citizens, and state and local governments for financial support.

The Watergate scandal had a major impact on the contents of presidential libraries. Incensed by Nixon’s role in a break-in at the DNC headquarters, Congress passed the Presidential Records Act (PRA) in 1978, which decreed that the paperwork of an outgoing commander-in-chief elected after 1980 must be made public through Freedom of Information Act requests five years after he or she leaves office. However, the PRA does allow a president to withhold certain sensitive documents from the public eye for “up to 12 years.”

It’s hard to say what the future holds for presidential libraries, but at the very least, we do know that a brand new one is well on its way. Jackson Park, on Chicago’s South Side, was recently chosen as the future home of The Obama Presidential Center, which is scheduled to be completed by the year 2021.

Also, construction on a Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum is currently underway in Dickinson, North Dakota. Because the Bull Moose’s paper trail has been scattered far and wide over the past century, the museum will feature an archive that mainly consists of digitized documents. “It’s very difficult to create a traditional presidential library for TR, because all the materials will never be gathered physically in one place,” Sharon Kilzer, the Dickinson State University alum who’s overseeing the project, said. “This [digital archives approach] could be a model through which the legacies of … other presidents are also preserved and made accessible to the public.”