Presidential Libraries

Presidential Library History

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Franklin D. Roosevelt speaks at the dedication of his library in Hyde Park, NY, on June 30, 1941. (Franklin D. Roosevelt Library)

At the dedication of his library on June 30, 1941, Franklin Roosevelt observed:

"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 judgement in creating their own future."


Franklin D. Roosevelt

The Presidential Library system formally began in 1939, when President Franklin Roosevelt donated his personal and Presidential papers to the Federal Government. At the same time, Roosevelt pledged part of his estate at Hyde Park to the United States, and friends of the President formed a non-profit corporation to raise funds for the construction of the library and museum building.

Roosevelt's decision stemmed from a firm belief that Presidential papers are an important part of the national heritage and should be accessible to the public. He asked the National Archives to take custody of his papers and other historical materials and to administer his library.

Before the advent of the Presidential Library system, Presidents or their heirs often dispersed Presidential papers at the end of the administration. Though many pre-Hoover collections now reside in the Library of Congress, others are split among other libraries, historical societies, and private collections. Sadly, many materials have been lost or deliberately destroyed.

In 1950, Harry S. Truman decided that he, too, would build a library to house his Presidential papers and helped to galvanize congressional action. In 1955, Congress passed the Presidential Libraries Act, establishing a system of privately erected and federally maintained libraries. The Act encouraged other Presidents to donate their historical materials to the government and ensured the preservation of Presidential papers and their availability to the American people. Under this and subsequent acts, more libraries have been established. 

The Presidential Records Act

Until 1978, Presidents, scholars, and legal professionals held the view dating back to George Washington that the records created by the President or his staff while in office remained the personal property of the President and were his to take with him when he left office. The first Presidential libraries were built on this concept. NARA successfully persuaded Presidents to donate their historical materials to the Government for housing in a Presidential library managed by NARA.

The Presidential Records Act of 1978 established that the Presidential records that document the constitutional, statutory, and ceremonial duties of the President are the property of the United States Government. After the President leaves office, the Archivist of the United States assumes custody of the records. The Act allowed for the continuation of Presidential libraries as the repository for Presidential records.

The Presidential Libraries Act of 1986 also made significant changes to Presidential libraries, requiring private endowments linked to the size of the facility. NARA uses these endowments to offset a portion of the maintenance costs for the library.

Digital Model for the Obama Presidential Library

In May 2017, the Obama Foundation, a private entity, made the decision not to construct a Presidential Library for NARA to house the paper records and physical artifacts. Instead, the Obama Foundation plans to build and operate a private museum and presidential center in Chicago. NARA will digitize and then store and preserve all original presidential records and artifacts in an existing NARA facility that meets NARA’s standards for archival storage. NARA retains legal and physical custody of the records and artifacts. NARA will maintain, preserve, and provide access to the Presidential records of the Obama administration, in accordance with the Presidential Records Act, employing a digital model for access to opened records and loans of materials for display around the world, including at the private Obama Presidential Center. Educational and public programs, both live and virtual, will also be a critical component of the Obama Presidential Library. More information can be found on the Obama Library's website related to the current digitation process.