Frequently Asked Questions about Presidential Libraries
- How did the Presidential Library System come into being?
- What happens to Presidential materials at the end of a Presidential administration?
- What is the role of the Office of Presidential Libraries within the National Archives and Records Administration?
- What institutions comprise the Presidential Library System administered by the National Archives and Records Administration?
- Is the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace in Yorba Linda, California a part of the Presidential Library System?
Access to Records
- How soon are the papers and records of a former President open for research?
- What are libraries doing to declassify Presidential papers and records?
- How can a researcher find out what records are open at a Presidential Library?
- How can a researcher gain access to unprocessed Presidential records?
- How can a researcher gain access to Presidential records closed under Presidential Records Act restrictions?
- How can a researcher gain access to Presidential records closed under Freedom of Information Act exemptions?
- How can a researcher gain access to Presidential papers and records closed because of national security classification?
- Who decides where a Presidential Library should be located?
- Are there any limits to the size of Presidential Library buildings?
- What is the largest Presidential Library?
- What is the smallest Presidential Library?
- What is housed in a Presidential Library?
- Where are the materials of Presidents before Herbert Hoover?
- What Presidential Library has the largest amount of holdings?
- What Presidential Library has the smallest amount of holdings?
- How is a Presidential Library paid for and funded?
- What is the role of a Presidential Library foundation?
- Why should taxpayers support Presidential libraries?
Laws & Regulations
- What are the key statutes governing the establishment and operation of a Presidential Library?
- What is a deed of gift?
- What is the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act?
- What is the Presidential Records Act and how does it relate to the Freedom of Information Act?
A dramatic increase in the amount of Presidential papers during his administration led President Franklin D. Roosevelt to seek the advice of prominent historians and public figures to plan a method for keeping not only his White House files, but also his earlier papers, book collection, and memorabilia.
Roosevelt announced plans for a new type of facility, a Presidential Library, on December 10, 1938. An organization was chartered to raise private funds for the construction of the building to be situated on Roosevelt's Hyde Park estate. On July 18, 1939, Congress passed a joint resolution accepting the new facility and agreeing to operate it as part of the National Archives. The Roosevelt Library was dedicated on July 4, 1940. The library became the model for subsequent Presidential libraries.
Succeeding libraries have been constructed with private and other non-Federal funds. A private, non-profit organization is formed to coordinate these efforts and provide support for library and museum programs. Once a library is constructed, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) assumes responsibility for its operation and maintenance in accordance with the Presidential Libraries Acts of 1955 and 1986.
As a Presidential administration nears its end, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) works closely with the White House and the Department of Defense (DOD) to undertake a smooth transfer of Presidential records and other historical materials to NARA.
NARA locates, rents, and retrofits, as necessary, appropriate temporary storage in the area of the future Presidential Library. At the same time, NARA begins the massive undertaking of organizing, boxing, palletizing, and moving a huge amount of Presidential materials from various Washington, D.C., locations to the temporary storage facility (then known as a "Presidential Project"). This process, done in coordination with the White House and the DOD, usually takes several months, and must be completed at noon on Inauguration Day.
At the end of the Clinton administration, eight flights of fully loaded U.S. Air Force and Air National Guard C-5 cargo planes transported 625 tons of material from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland to the Little Rock Air Force Base in Arkansas. The total consisted of 58,000 cubic feet of Presidential materials, including 3,300 cubic feet of audiovisual materials and 26,300 cubic feet of artifacts. Forty-two semi-trailer truck trips were required to move the materials from Little Rock Air Force Base to the Clinton Presidential Materials Project site.
The Office of Presidential Libraries is the program office of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) responsible for the overall administration of the Presidential Library system. In this role, the Office of Presidential Libraries oversees budget submissions for the system, coordinates the development and implementation of NARA policies and procedures, and represents the Presidential Library System within NARA.
The Office of Presidential Libraries also coordinates major construction and renovation projects at the libraries and carries out a regular schedule of program reviews (internal audits) at the libraries.
The Presidential Library system is comprised of thirteen Presidential libraries documenting Presidents Herbert Hoover through William J. Clinton.
Arranged in the order in which they were added to the system, Presidential libraries and their dedication dates include:
- Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, July 4, 1940
- Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum, July 6, 1957
- Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum, November 11, 1954 (Museum) and May 1, 1962 (Library)
- Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum, August 10, 1962
- Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library and Museum, May 22, 1971
- John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, October 20, 1979
- Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum, April 27, 1981 (Library) and September 18, 1981 (Museum)
- Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum, October 1, 1986
- Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, November 4, 1991
- George Bush Presidential Library and Museum, November 6, 1997
- William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum, 2004
- Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, July 11, 2007
- George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, April 25, 2013
The Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace in Yorba Linda, California, is a privately funded and operated institution and is not a part of the Presidential Library System operated by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).
On July 11, 2007, the National Archives and Records Administration opened the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.
By agreement between the private Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace Foundation and the National Archives, control over the bulk of the facilities of the private Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace were transferred over to the federal government for use by the new Library. In addition, the transfer agreement gave to the Federal government presidential materials previously returned to President Nixon and his estate in the 1980s and 1990s.
Upon the completion of a suitable addition to the library, the Nixon presidential materials in College Park, Maryland, including the tapes, papers and head of state gifts will be moved to the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda.
How soon the papers and records of a former President are available for research depends on a number of variables. For older Presidential libraries (Hoover through Carter, with the exception of Nixon), the holdings of which are governed by deeds of gift, the papers are processed according to prioritized plans. These plans are often developed with input from the former Presidents. Major areas of current research interest and the timeliness of topics in the national arena are also considered.
For newer libraries (Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush), the holdings of which are governed by the Presidential Records Act (PRA), the records are exempt from public release for five years after the end of a Presidential administration. During this five-year period, archivists process and prepare some of the materials, usually around five percent of the Presidential holdings, for release to researchers.
After the end of the five-year period, a body of records is available for research, and all Presidential records become subject to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. These requests should be made in writing and cite the Freedom of Information Act and should then be submitted to the appropriate library by mail, e-mail, fax, or in person.
The libraries whose Presidential holdings are governed by the PRA then work to respond to FOIA requests from the general public by processing records and making them publicly available not only to requestors but also to anyone interested in conducting research on the particular topics covered by FOIA requests.
In 2012, the libraries processed 18,520,000 pages of textual materials and 227,500 pages of non-textual (AV) materials.
The Presidential libraries hold some of the most sensitive and high policy level papers and records in the Federal government.
Prior to the implementation of Executive Order 12958, which called for the declassification of papers and records over 25 years old, the libraries held over 23 million pages of classified papers and records, Hoover through Bush.
For libraries with papers and records over 25 years old, the libraries have reviewed, declassified and opened a tremendous amount of materials.
The libraries use a variety of approaches in conducting a declassification review on their papers and records. For many of the older Presidential classified documents, libraries can use guidance delegated to the Archivist of the United States from equity-holding entities, such as the Department of State and the National Security Council, to declassify documents. Using this approach, libraries have been able to review nearly 2 million pages and release 1.2 million pages of declassified papers and records.
In addition, the Presidential libraries in 1996 entered into an interagency declassification effort called the Remote Archives Capture Project (RAC) with the Central Intelligence Agency.
Through the RAC, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has been able to scan over 1.1 million pages of highly classified papers and records at the Eisenhower through Reagan Libraries, for which NARA has not been granted declassification authority. These scanned images are then brought back to the Washington area and made available for review by agencies with an interest in the documents.
The libraries are beginning to receive decisions on these papers and records, releasing information in 35,000 pages of materials. Scanning will continue at the Carter and Reagan Libraries this year.
Furthermore, libraries continue to fulfill researcher requests for mandatory declassification review or FOIA requests for classified Presidential papers and records not yet released in the libraries.
Several ways are available to learn about open materials at a Presidential Library.
One of the most convenient methods is to utilize the World Wide Web site for a library. In many instances, libraries provide a list of materials available for research, and some even include findings aids. Finding aids are descriptive documents created by archivists about the contents of processed groups of archival materials.
If finding aids are not available online, then a researcher should contact the library, determine availability, and request a copy or go to the library and utilize a finding aid in the research room. Additionally, some libraries provide printed "guides" to holdings which include a general overview of all materials, open and closed, held by the library.
Another way to learn about open materials is to access the Online Catalog, which includes descriptions of historical materials within NARA, including Presidential libraries.
Through the FOIA, researchers may request that a Presidential Library process records and make them available for research. Prior to the release of any records, archivists must complete a line-by-line review of every page intended for release to withdraw any sensitive or restricted information.
If a Presidential record or a portion thereof is closed under a restriction of the Presidential Records Act (PRA), with the exception of national security classified information, the closure may be appealed by the researcher.
An appeal should be filed in writing no later than ten working days after the researcher receives written notification that access to the Presidential records has been denied and should specify why the researcher feels access should be granted. For additional information regarding appeal procedures, researchers should contact the library holding the records.
The appeal is first addressed to the Presidential Library, where the closed materials are re-reviewed by the library's appeal authority, often the director.
If the appeal authority overturns the closure, the materials are submitted for notification to the legal representatives of the former and incumbent Presidents according to the Presidential Records Act (PRA).
If the appeal authority sustains the closure, the researcher may appeal to the Assistant Archivist for Presidential Libraries. There is no additional appeal authority.
Generally, when access to a Presidential record is denied solely under a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) exemption, such closure may be appealed to the Deputy Archivist of the United States.
The Deputy Archivist makes final determinations on the releasability of all non-classified records and classified records created by the White House and/or the National Security Council.
For appeals of access to classified information withheld at the request of another agency, the researcher should direct the appeal to the originating agency.
All other appeals should be filed in writing within thirty-five calendar days of the date that the researcher receives written notification that access to the Presidential Record has been denied and should specify why the requestor feels access should be granted.
When a FOIA appeal is denied, the researcher has a right to litigate.
Denials under the Presidential Records Act (PRA) or Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) of access to national security information are made by designated officials of the originating or responsible agency, or by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) under a written delegation of authority.
A researcher may appeal determinations that records remain classified for reasons of national security to the agency with responsibility for protecting and declassifying that information and may further appeal a denial under a mandatory review to the Information Security Appeals Panel.
Presidential libraries are open to the general public of all ages. With the exception of the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library and Museum, which is free, each library charges a modest admission fee, with revenues going to support museum operations and programs.
Each library has a museum component that documents the life and times of its respective President.The museums also host changing exhibits about particular topics relating to American history and experience. All exhibits are open to the general public and include original documents as well as artifacts. Many libraries also have an active education component, providing programs geared specifically to students and often tied to local curricula.
The President, with advice from the Archivist of the United States, makes the decision about the location of his Presidential Library. In consultation with his family, friends, and associates, he usually selects from a series of proposals submitted by interested communities or universities.
Presidents have often celebrated their origins and placed their libraries in their hometowns. However, today Presidents sometimes place their libraries on or near a university campus. For example, the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum is located on the campus of Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas. Though former President Bush never attended Texas A&M or lived in College Station, he liked the atmosphere of the community and the opportunity to integrate the library into the university community.
Though not specifically limiting the size of Presidential libraries, the Presidential Libraries Act of 1986 mandates that library foundations must provide an endowment to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) upon acceptance of the library facility by the Archivist of the United States. The size of this endowment is based in part on the size of the facility.
A significant increase in the endowment for facilities over 70,000 square feet has had the practical effect of limiting the size of newer libraries to less than 70,000 square feet.
In terms of building size, the largest library operated by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum at 164,017 square feet.
The smallest library in size is the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum at 47,169 square feet.
A Presidential Library is a rich resource about a particular President as well as about the times in which he lived. The papers and records created by, for, or about a President during his life and career comprise the holdings of all Presidential libraries. The papers and records document the personal and professional lives of a President, his family, close friends, and business and political associates, revealing the details about a President's family life, career, and White House activities.
Along with the papers and records, a Presidential Library contains thousands of feet of motion picture film and videotape, as well as millions of still pictures revealing all aspects of a President's life before, during, and after the White House. This rich resource of audiovisual materials may include home movies, official White House photographs, and audiotapes of Presidential conversations.
Additionally, a Presidential Library contains thousands of artifacts, the objects that document a life and career. Whether a gift from a foreign head of state or a cherished childhood memento, the artifacts provide a unique record of a President's life, in and out of the public eye.
Although Franklin D. Roosevelt established the first Presidential Library, his predecessor, Herbert Hoover, later established a Presidential Library in West Branch, Iowa. The materials of Presidents prior to Herbert Hoover are dispersed throughout the nation. Some are held by universities and historial societies, but a large quantity are held by the Library of Congress.
Unfortunately, the extent of Presidential materials in archival and historical institutions across the country varies considerably depending on the attitudes of the former Presidents, their families, and friends, to the preservation of their documentary materials. Many materials were lost, purposefully destroyed, or dispersed to family, friends, and supporters.
The Clinton Presidential Library and Museum has the largest overall number of textual, audiovisual and artifact materials.
The library holds approximately 78,000,000 pages of official records, 20,000,000 emails, 2,000,000 photographs, and 12,500 videotapes documenting the life and career of the 42nd president of the United States.
The Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum has the smallest overall number of items in its holdings.
The library includes over 8,500,000 pages of textual materials, over 43,000 still pictures, over 155,000 feet of motion picture film, and 521 hours of audiotape. Additionally, the library holds 5,479 museum objects.
A Presidential Library is constructed with private or non-Federal funds donated to non-profit organizations established usually for the express purpose of building a Presidential Library and supporting its programs. Some libraries have also received construction and development funding from state and/or local governments.
The library is then transferred to the Federal government and operated and maintained by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) through its congressionally appropriated operating budget. Some staff and programs at Presidential libraries are paid for with funds from associated private foundations organized to fund the construction of the library and provide continuing support for library programs and special events, such as conferences and exhibitions.
Presidential libraries carry out a mandated program to preserve, process, and make available their archival holdings. This program implicitly calls for outreach and educational programs. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) does not have sufficient resources to provide the broadest spectrum of innovative and insightful public, education, and information programs in each library. Foundation support is critical to full development of each library.
Presidential libraries, their museums, their web sites, and the scholarship they promote benefit in significant ways from private organizations established to support such programs. In several cases, these organizations evolved from bodies chartered to raise money and construct the original library building. In other instances, these organizations were formed after the dedication of the library by friends of the President.
Just as the origin and development of these organizations have varied, their formation and operation take a number of forms. Some of the organizations encourage public participation through payment of membership fees. Others are non-membership charitable foundations and corporations. Several seek to support their activities solely through private contributions. Some foundations are run by paid staff, others are totally voluntary.
Also, it should be noted that, starting with the George Bush Library, all future Presidential Library foundations must provide an endowment to NARA to help offset facility operating expenses.
The papers and records created by, for, or about Presidents, Vice Presidents, and their administrations document the key decisions, policy and activities of the institution of the Presidency — the highest policy level of government. Additionally, these papers and records document the only individuals in the government of the United States elected nationally.
The documents not only inform society about the President as an individual and about his term in office, but also provide insights into the American experience. Without systematic preservation of and access to these materials, the very history of our nation would be incomplete. These records provide knowledge important in conducting the ongoing business of the Presidency and are a vital record for posterity in documenting the knowledge of past decisions so necessary in making thorough judgements about current issues.
The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has a statutory obligation to care for and provide access to legally defined Presidential records as a result of the Presidential Records Act of 1978. This law vested the ownership and administration of Presidential records with the United States Government through NARA.
Staffs of professional archivists who are Federal, not political ,employees, administer the materials according to all legal and statutory requirements, while also making the materials accessible to all citizens, regardless of political affiliation.
Many aspects of museum and public programs are, in fact, supported by private funds, although they are overseen by government professionals including curators, educators, and archivists.
Though Congress approved the acceptance of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum by the National Archives in 1939, the nation's legislative branch did not formally authorize the Presidential Library System until 1955 with the passage of the Presidential Libraries Act.
The Presidential Libraries Act of 1955 codified the acceptance, in the name of the United States, of land, buildings, and equipment for the purposes of creating a Presidential archival depository, as well as the role of the National Archives in maintaining, operating, and protecting them as a Presidential archival depository.
The act was amended in 1986 and mandated trust funds for Presidential Library buildings over 70,000 square feet to offset the costs of maintaining and operating the facilities.
A deed of gift is a legal document between a donor and an archival repository. Prior to the passage of the Presidential Records Act (PRA) in 1978, the documentary materials created by a President and his staff during an administration were considered the President's personal property to be disposed of as he desired. Presidents Herbert Hoover through Jimmy Carter (with the exception of Richard Nixon) donated their Presidential papers to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) through deed of gift agreements.
Deeds of gift include restrictions of materials for national security and invasion of privacy reasons.
As a result of the abuses of governmental power commonly known as "Watergate" and the controversy that occurred over the disposition of the Nixon tapes and papers documenting these abuses, Congress passed the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act (PRMPA) in 1974.
PRMPA transferred ownership of the Presidential historical materials of Richard Nixon to the Federal government, deposited them with the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), and specified access restrictions to these materials. The act also called for a commission to study and make recommendations regarding the status of the papers of all Federal officials, including those of the President.
The findings of this study led to the Presidential Records Act of 1978, vesting ownership of the official records of the President and Vice President with the Federal government after January 20, 1981.
The Presidential Records Act (PRA) was passed by Congress in 1978 and vested ownership in official Presidential records with the Federal government.
The PRA provides a five-year period after the end of an administration during which records are closed to the general public for processing. The act gives the President and Vice President the ability to place up to six Presidential restriction categories on their records. Records falling within one of these restriction categories may be withheld from release to the general public for up to twelve years after the end of a Presidential administration.
The act also makes Presidential records subject to eight of the nine Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) exemptions.
Five years after the end of an administration, Presidential records become available to FOIA requests.
When the twelve-year period of PRA exemptions lapses, records formerly covered by the PRA exemptions are subject to disclosure unless covered by a FOIA exemption or a constitutionally-based privilege.