It’s a tradition in America that after running the country for four or eight years, you put all of your stuff in a library. Every president since FDR has constructed one, although they usually take a few years to go up after a president leaves office. Which leads us to Barack Obama—who might be screwing the whole tradition up.
Per the New York Times, Obama’s forthcoming library won’t be a library at all. Instead, it’ll be a “working center for citizenship,” run privately by the Obama Foundation, that lacks some of the key characteristics of past libraries.
In a break with precedent, there will be no research library on site, and none of Mr. Obama’s official presidential records. Instead, the Obama Foundation will pay to digitize the roughly 30 million pages of unclassified paper records from the administration so they can be made available online.
And the entire complex, including the museum chronicling Mr. Obama’s presidency, will be run by the foundation, a private nonprofit entity, rather than by the National Archives and Records Administration, the federal agency that administers the libraries and museums for all presidents going back to Herbert Hoover.
This may all sound like a bunch of semantics, but some of the details of how this new arrangement is going to work out have pissed off historians, who worry what kind of precedent it’s going to set. The chief concerns, it seems, are the lack of involvement by the National Archives and Records Administration, effectively fully privatizing a presidential library. That’s not great! The government, represented in this case by NARA, is responsible to the people in a way that private foundations, even non-profit ones, are not.
The second problem is digitalizing the traditional contents of a presidential library. The Obama Foundation is framing digitization as the way of the future (which, sure), but the worry is that tossing a bunch of data online without professional archivists at NARA working on it won’t be great for future research.
From the Times:
Without a dedicated repository, [historians] argue, the rich constellations of related material found at the other libraries — papers donated by family members, cabinet members and aides, as well as pre-presidential and personal papers — could end up scattered, or even uncollected. And without help from specialized archivists, the promised digital democratization could just as easily turn into a hard-to-navigate data dump.
From a strictly academic perspective—the persistent worries about the harmful effects it could have on its surrounding neighborhood are another matter—Obama’s library, or “presidential center,” or whatever, is probably going to be fine in most respects. A 2017 press release by the Foundation notes that the paper records—millions of pages and thousands of artifacts that military convoys shipped to Chicago after Obama left office—will still be housed in a separate NARA facility. For the most part, it appears that everything will be digitized and made available to the public eventually. But the point of a NARA-run library is that the government and private documentation of a president’s life and career are under one roof—something that can’t be said about Obama’s center.
From an op-ed in the Public Historian by Bob Clark, the former director of FDR’s library and a sharp critic of Obama’s decision:
Yes, the Obama presidential records will be preserved by the National Archives, but these will not be held in conjunction with nonpresidential record materials that can demonstrate nuance and context. Instead, all of these related materials will be donated to universities or the Library of Congress, purchased by collectors, or simply lost to history. Government transparency and accountability will be reduced by creating geographic and financial barriers to historians, scholars, journalists, and citizens trying to piece together the story of these times and the actions of executive branch officials.
The other obvious fear is that this change will set a precedent for Donald Trump’s library to be truly awful, depriving historians, journalists, and other researchers of the ability to go over documentation of his presidency in depth. Segregating the public archives from the private museum, as Obama has done, will allow Trump to curate and run his own museum without letting the more impartial archivists at NARA have any input into the presentation of his legacy. Here’s Clark describing exactly how Nixon tried to do this following Watergate in an article for the Public Historian:
When Nixon built his private library, his foundation was flush with cash. His die-hard supporters were passionately committed, making negotiations to join the NARA system difficult and contentious. They did not like the idea of government archivists and administrators insisting on a more balanced historical view of the Nixon presidency and Watergate. But in the end, they relented and the Nixon Library became a NARA library in 2007. Why? Because being part of the NARA presidential library system brings prestige, recognition, and legitimacy. And because their private cash flow could no longer sustain operations.
A criminal president with die-hard supporters who relentlessly push their own narrative of historical events despite overwhelming public evidence? Sounds familiar to me—and Trump definitely doesn’t seem like someone who will cave to the institutional legitimacy when his own private propaganda shop is an option.