Updated Information About Obama Presidential Library
The Barack Obama Presidential Library plans to employ a new virtual model that makes records available online. The below bullet points and list of frequently asked questions provide background details and additional information.
- The Presidential Libraries Act of 1955 codified the acceptance, in the name of the U.S., 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 does not require a foundation to build a facility to house the records and artifacts, nor does it require the National Archives to accept such a facility.
- The act was amended in 1986, establishing a presumptive limit of 70,000 square feet for any future Presidential Library facility that will be provided to the government and a requirement for an endowment of 20 percent of the overall initial construction cost of the facility to offset the maintenance costs of the facility. That amount was increased in 2003 to 40 percent and increased again in 2008 to 60 percent.
- The Obama Foundation made the decision in May 2017 not to construct a Presidential Library for NARA to house the paper records and physical artifacts. Instead, the Foundation intended to provide funding for the digitization of records so they could be made available online. NARA in turn announced a New Model for the Preservation and Accessibility of Presidential Records in a May 2017 press release.
- Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted these plans. Digitization plans are on hold. With the Obama Presidential records becoming subject to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests on January 20, 2022, NARA will process textual records in a traditional manner, with archival staff processing responsive textual records requested via FOIA from the textual record.
- NARA will then digitize these processed records in the same manner records are digitized at other Presidential Libraries as part of the FOIA review and access process. Digitization of these processed records will occur after review/notification has been completed. The paper records will continue to be preserved as permanent records after digitization is complete.
- NARA continues to retain 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.
- NARA will store and preserve the original materials in an existing NARA facility that meets NARA’s standards for archival storage.
- The classified records have been relocated to the National Archives at College Park, MD, to facilitate their review for declassification as part of the work by the National Declassification Center (established by President Obama via Executive Order 13526) and in keeping with recommendations of the Public Interest Declassification Board.
- While the vast majority of the material transferred into the custody of the National Archives from the Obama administration was “born digital” (the 300 million emails are equivalent to over one billion pages), the 30 million pages of paper records are an integral part of the collection.
- The Obama Presidential Center, to be located on Chicago’s South Side in Jackson Park, will be a privately operated, non-federal organization that includes a presidential museum. NARA will not have a Library or staff presence at this site.
DECISION / NEW MODEL
Why is the “new model” going to be different from the other existing NARA Presidential Libraries?
The Obama Foundation, a private entity, made the decision not to construct a Presidential Library for NARA to house the textual and audiovisual records and artifacts. NARA will store and preserve the original materials 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 virtual model for opened records.
Did the Obama Foundation need approval from the National Archives to implement this decision?
The Obama Foundation is not required to provide NARA with a building for the records and our staff. In May 2017, they informed us and publicly announced that they will not be doing so. Their decision is not subject to NARA approval.
What are NARA’s responsibilities regarding President Obama’s records?
NARA will maintain, preserve, and provide access to the Presidential records of the Obama administration, in accordance with the Presidential Records Act. Our mission and responsibility have not changed.
Is it unusual for a Presidential Museum to be owned and operated by a Presidential foundation, not NARA?
This model is similar to that of the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace, which operated privately from 1990 to 2007. During that time period, the National Archives did not administer or operate its museum, nor were there National Archives staff onsite. Using that framework, NARA will focus its resources and personnel on preserving and making the Obama presidential records accessible to the public in digital format. This will include lending items for display in the museum operated by the Foundation as part of the Obama Presidential Center as well as lending to other institutions.
Are there benefits, such as increased efficiency, that can be realized from the new structure?
Yes. While we are still exploring all of the opportunities and challenges presented by the new model, several aspects of the new model lend themselves to potential efficiencies and savings. For example, the decentralized approach to storing classified records and later processing them for declassification has been highlighted by subject matter experts within and outside the Federal government as prone to inefficiency.
Are there any plans to impose this model on existing Presidential Libraries and Museums and, if so, how will that affect NARA employees at those facilities?
NARA has no plans to apply this change retroactively.
NARA indicated that records would be stored in existing facilities; does that mean that the collection will be broken up in different locations? Where will the materials be stored?
The unclassified records and the artifacts will be stored in an existing NARA facility to be determined and the classified records have been moved to the National Archives at College Park, Maryland, where they will be reviewed for declassification by the National Declassification Center (established by President Obama in 2009 by Executive Order 13526).
Will the Barack Obama Presidential Library have an active accessioning program?
Yes. Adding to the body of materials that serve as the archives of each President is an important part of NARA’s mission. The Barack Obama Presidential Library has already accessioned collections donated to us from the public and will continue to do so. These collections, after being reviewed according to the donor’s stipulations, will be made available virtually through the National Archives Catalog and on the Barack Obama Presidential Library website and will also be available for loan to external and internal institutions (including the Obama Presidential Center) as part of our ongoing loan program.
Will this new model be the model for all presidential libraries going forward?
NARA supports this model going forward. Considering the increasing volume of records that are born-digital, this model aligns with changes in the expectations of the public that our holdings be available free and online. It also fits squarely with our new Strategic Plan. This model also opens up more options for future former presidents beyond traditional brick-and-mortar facilities, will ultimately improve public access to records, and is compatible with ongoing digital government initiatives.
What will the future staffing plan of the Barack Obama Presidential Library look like? Will their responsibilities differ than those of traditional presidential libraries?
There is and will continue to be a distinct staff dedicated to the preservation, review, and access of the presidential records and artifacts of the Barack Obama administration. No final decisions have been made at this time regarding the number of staff or where they will be located.
How will NARA assist researchers with these digitized records?
NARA is committed to supporting all researchers, whether they visit one of our physical research rooms or access our holdings online. We reach more people today online than we serve in our research rooms around the country, so this is an important issue for us and we are continually exploring how we can increase and improve our engagement with online researchers.
Will any Federal staff work in the museum or on the exhibits, educational, or any other public programming function at the Obama Presidential Center?
NARA will not have a presence at the Obama Presidential Center. NARA will preserve the artifacts and records and will manage an ongoing loan program to support the display of items at museums that meet our standards, including the privately run Obama Museum, which will be a component of the Obama Presidential Center. NARA-led education and public program functions will all be accomplished from existing NARA facilities.
DIGITIZATION / RECORDS PROCESSING
Will documents be posted as they are digitized, and will paper records of as-yet undigitized records be available in the meantime?
Most Presidential records are not publicly available for five years after the end of the administration. NARA will be processing and preparing materials for release to researchers during the five-year period. In general, NARA will not make Obama Presidential records available to the public—in paper or digital formats—before January 2022.
Will researchers be able to access original documents after they have been digitized?
After the records are digitized, NARA will store and preserve the original materials in an existing NARA facility that meets NARA’s standards for archival storage. If there is a compelling need to see an original document, NARA will make it available in one of its public research rooms. This is consistent with long-standing NARA practice relating to systematically digitized and microfilmed records. Further, we do not serve originals to the public when we identify concerns from a security or preservation perspective or when a record is released in redacted form under the Presidential Records Act, the Freedom of Information Act, the Privacy Act, a deed of gift, or any other provision of law, regulation, or policy.
Original documents and artifacts will be available for loan as part of our ongoing loan program.
Will classified records be digitized?
In time, classified records that have been declassified and then reviewed in accordance with the Presidential Records Act will be digitized and made available to requestors in the same manner that the unclassified records are being made available – i.e., virtually, through the National Archives Catalog and the Barack Obama Presidential Library website.
In what order will documents be processed?
The order of processing, digitization, and public release all remain to be determined until we have more information about work flows, staffing, and budget. Most Presidential records are not publicly available for five years after the end of the administration, and after that are made available in response to FOIA requests. NARA will be processing and preparing materials for release to researchers during the five year period. In general, NARA will not make Obama Presidential records available to the public before January 2022.
Will the Obama Presidential Library respond to FOIA requests in the meantime?
Presidential records are not subject to FOIA for five years. NARA is committed to meeting all our obligations under the Presidential Records Act and the FOIA.
Does processing happen at the same time as digitization?
Metadata created as part of the digitization process may inform processing, but the digitization and review processes are otherwise separate and distinct.
Do NARA's architectural and design standards for Presidential Libraries apply to the Obama Presidential Center—or not, given that it won't be a home for physical documents?
NARA's requirements apply to the Obama Presidential Center only to the extent the privately owned and operated museum intends to borrow records and artifacts from NARA for display. Those requirements support the preservation and security of loaned items and apply to any museum or other facility that borrows items from NARA.
What type of agreement will cover the loan of artifacts and records to the Obama Presidential Center?
NARA routinely lends records and artifacts to other museums through each presidential library’s active loan program and has standard procedures and policies in place to guide this aspect of our work.
Will original documents be available for loan after they have been digitized?
Original documents and artifacts will be available for loan as part of our ongoing loan program.