Earlier this year, the Clinton Presidential Center, in Little Rock, AR sponsored two special exhibitions honoring Elvis Presley. The exhibitions featured Artist Kristen Helberg’s fanciful depiction of the musical collaboration between a saxophone-playing Bill Clinton, former U.S. President, and Elvis Presley, the King of Rock and Roll, with both “Southern Boys” attired in Elvis’s signature jumpsuits. Personally, I was gratified to learn I wasn’t the only one who appreciated the similarities between the two men and that my conviction that Presidential libraries offered something for everyone was apparent. I was also disappointed not to have seen the painting myself. I had the privilege of visiting the Clinton Presidential Center in the spring of 2005, only six months after it had opened. I say privilege because those attending the annual conference of the Southwestern Association of Law Libraries had the library to themselves.
The first Presidential Library I ever visited was the Truman library in Independence, MO. My parents, sister and I were taking a long weekend trip and what was to be our last family vacation, celebrating my graduation from grad school and my sister’s graduation from undergrad. We all had differing agendas for the trip and stopping at the library on our way into greater Kansas City was a compromise. It was also a great success. There really was something for everyone: cars, fashion, gifts from foreign heads of state, photos, campaign memorabilia, awards, art work and, of course, presidential papers. President Truman and his wife are buried on the grounds of his library and museum. I subsequently learned that with the exception of John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Gerald Ford, every U.S. President since Hoover has been buried near his respective Presidential Library.
As it happens, President Harry Truman was instrumental in the development of the Presidential Library system as we know it today. He encouraged Congress to pass the first of several acts concerning the preservation of presidential papers and the creation of presidential libraries. Truman, however, was not the first to create his own library. Many former Presidents (or their heirs) often took charge of their own papers. Many donated them to the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress or made arrangements with other societies. The widow of James Garfield, for example, created a Memorial Library wing to the family home in Ohio, which is operated by the National Park Service and the Western Reserve Historical Society.
President Franklin Roosevelt donated his personal and Presidential papers to the federal government, creating the formal template for Presidential Libraries. It was his conviction that a President’s papers were of historical importance and should be available to the public. Roosevelt not only donated his papers, he pledged part of his Hyde Park, NY home to the government and his friends created a non-profit corporation to fund the construction of a library and museum. President Truman echoed Roosevelt’s belief that Presidential materials should be made available to the public. He not only followed the model which Roosevelt had created, but his efforts paved the way for Congress to pass several acts which would facilitate the on-going creation of Presidential Libraries.
In 1955, Congress passed the Presidential Libraries Act of 1955. This act created a system of libraries which were built with private funds and which are maintained with the support of the National Archives and Records Administration(NARA). This act encouraged other Presidents to donate their papers and other historical materials to the government. It also helped guarantee the preservation of Presidential papers. Additional legislation which enabled the system of Presidential Libraries to grow included: The Presidential Records Act of 1978, The Presidential Libraries Act of 1986, and the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act of 1974. Additionally, Executive Orders 13489 and 12958 helped to ensure the preservation of presidential papers.
As with any museum, the mission of the respective Presidential libraries and museums is to educate and to position the achievements of each president in a historical context. Of course, the individual president (or his friends and heirs) also hope to provide the “other side of the story” or a balanced perspective.
For example, at President Gerald Ford’s museum and library one will find information regarding Ford’s pardoning of Richard Nixon and his plan to grant clemency to those individuals who dodged the draft. In addition to evidence of the president’s efforts toward healing and compassion, one may also view a uniform and medals, returned by an individual in protest of those decisions. The libraries and museums of both Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton also attempt to juxtapose achievements and controversy. In other words, the libraries and museums of the respective presidents are not only worth noting, but worth visiting.