Prologue Magazine

Roosevelt and His Library

Summer 2001, Vol. 33, No. 2

By Cynthia M. Koch and Lynn A. Bassanese

refer to caption

FDR visits his library's construction site in 1939. (NARA, Franklin D. Roosevelt Library)

The year 1941 is remembered for Pearl Harbor, lend-lease, Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union, the Atlantic Charter, and Roosevelt's Four Freedoms Speech. But it is also a watershed date in the history of archival collections: on June 30 President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated his library in Hyde Park and forever changed the way our nation cares for and preserves the papers of its Presidents.

Sixty years have now passed since the ceremony in Hyde Park began what would become a presidential library system, operated by the National Archives and Records Administration. In the 1950s, FDR's predecessor, Herbert Hoover, and his successor, Harry S. Truman, built libraries for their records, and every President since then has made his library a major post–White House concern.

Today, the Presidential Records Act governs what happens to a President's records once he leaves office and how Presidential libraries are to be established and operated by NARA. But it was Roosevelt who set the pace and established the precedents for all those that followed. Until Roosevelt, Presidents leaving office routinely took their papers with them. George Washington set the precedent in 1797 when he took his files home with him to Mount Vernon, with the hope—never fulfilled—of building a library to house them. Years later his nephew Bushrod Washington expressed regret that Washington's papers had been "excessively mutilated by Rats."1 Some former Presidents destroyed their papers; others disposed of them haphazardly, making research and study difficult if not impossible. Ulysses S. Grant lost many of his, and most of Zachary Taylor's burned when Union troops occupied his son's home in Louisiana in 1862. Chester A. Arthur saw to it himself, setting three garbage cans full of documents on fire the day before his death in 1886.2

There were some government attempts to gather the papers—first by the State Department, which eventually acquired the papers of Washington, Jefferson, and Madison through the federal appropriations process. But the shortcomings of this method grew obvious when the purchase of Madison's papers became embroiled in politics. The original resolution to purchase the papers for the modest sum of $30,000 failed; fortunately they were at last acquired as a rider on the general appropriations bill for the year 1837.3

At the turn of the twentieth century, the families of former Presidents began to donate their papers to the Library of Congress, which eventually acquired the earlier papers from the State Department. By the late 1930s it held the bulk of what remained of the papers of twenty-three former Presidents. But in the meantime a great many presidential papers had disappeared: given away as souvenirs, destroyed, lost in family attics, and sold to autograph collectors.

Another alternative for presidential papers—and one that provided a good precedent for Roosevelt's plan—was the Hayes Memorial Library in Fremont, Ohio, which housed the manuscripts of Rutherford B. Hayes along with the books and mementos of his family. The materials were left as a trust and preserved in much the way FDR planned to preserve his own. The major difference was scale; the Hayes Memorial Library holdings number about 120,000 pages, while the Roosevelt Library contains more than 17 million pages of documents.

Why did FDR build this library and museum? Why was it so important to Roosevelt to preserve and protect—in Hyde Park in a single building—the documents, recordings, films, and objects that told the story of his life and contribution to our nation's history? Franklin Roosevelt's reasons were both personal and public. By 1938 he had accumulated a vast quantity of paper: correspondence, historical manuscripts, books, and memorabilia. He was not planning to run for a third term and contemplated retiring to Hyde Park to work on his papers and his collections. On the most basic level he needed a place to house them.

It seemed to friends and family that FDR collected everything: more than a million stamps in 150 matching albums, twelve hundred naval prints and paintings, more than two hundred fully rigged ship models, fifteen thousand books. No existing institution, not even the Library of Congress, had room for it all, and FDR could not bear to think of breaking it up. Mindful of the size and unusual scope of his collections, he admitted, "Future historians will curse as well as praise me."4

But Roosevelt also had the public interest in mind. In erecting his library, he self-consciously created a historical research institution of unparalleled value and a museum to educate the general public about the Roosevelt years. On June 30, 1941, the President opened the library with these words:

The dedication of a library is in itself an act of faith. 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 judgment in creating their own future.5

The Plan for the Library

Roosevelt studied the problem from every angle before reaching the decision to carve out a sixteen-acre lot from his Hyde Park estate and erect with private funds a modern fireproof building to serve as a permanent repository for his papers, books, and other historical material. He set a precedent for the nation when he donated the whole—as a completed project—to the United States, to be maintained for the benefit of the public. The library established for the first time in this country, under federal control for the use of the public, an extensive collection of source material relating to a specific period in American history. FDR ensured even broader public interest when he provided that on his death the rest of his Hyde Park estate, including his residence, should also become the property of the United States to be used for public purposes.

The President's own mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt, however, presented a formidable obstacle to FDR's plans. FDR biographer Geoffrey Ward detailed Sara's reaction to the project:

She was at best ambivalent about her son's enthusiasm for the Library project. No one admired him more—she had assumed since his childhood that he was destined for greatness—long before there was much reason to believe he would achieve it. And she sympathized with her son's desire to have a place where he could display his collections; after all, it was she who had encouraged his collecting since he was a small boy. She even took comfort in the prospect of him spending more time in Hyde Park. But the building he proposed to construct was just a two-minute stroll from her front door. It was to be enormous; and worse still, he was going to encourage the general public to visit it. It would forever alter her beloved estate Springwood, which she inherited from her late husband James Roosevelt and which for forty years she had labored to preserve despite the public pressures placed upon it by the boisterous lives of her son and daughter-in-law.6

At the very least, according to Ward, she felt she had been insufficiently consulted about her son's new plans for her old home. So she quietly boarded an ocean liner for her annual summer voyage to France without signing the deed to give the land for the library to the government. This was not discovered until the morning of July 24, 1939, a mere two hours before the elaborate ceremony in which FDR planned to turn the land over to the government. After a hasty consultation with the Justice Department, FDR resolved to move forward with what was in reality little more than a charade. With the cameras rolling, the President and Mrs. Roosevelt signed the deed of gift to property to which they had no legal title. Meanwhile a copy of the deed was rushed to France, and only after some cajoling from her son did Sara finally sign the deed that allowed the library to be built. The President's mother never fully reconciled herself to the library's presence, particularly when she realized that in addition to everything else, it meant that her son would abandon his old cubbyhole of an office just off her front porch for a spacious new study in the new building.7

President Roosevelt announced his plan for the library at a White House press conference on December 10, 1938. Before making the plan public, he submitted it to an advisory committee of American scholars, brought together by Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison. The committee was emphatically of the opinion that FDR's collections were too voluminous to be adequately preserved and administered as part of any existing library and too important as source materials for the study of recent American history to be held permanently in private custody. The committee smiled upon Roosevelt's plan to place the library on his estate, recognizing the advantage of having him personally involved in the arrangement, maintenance, and development of the collections. They even blessed Roosevelt's selection of Hyde Park. With the approach of war, and Washington possibly subject to bombing, the President worried about the concentration of presidential papers in the Library of Congress and suggested to the committee that Hyde Park was a particularly appropriate place for such a repository. While outside the major population centers, it was situated on what Roosevelt described—in an exaggeration duly noted by his critics—"one of the most heavily traveled roads in the country, it was in easy reach by train or automobile of the great research centers in the New England, Middle Atlantic, and Middle western states."8

The legislation necessary to carry the President's plan into effect was passed by the Seventy-sixth Congress at its first session; he signed it into law on July 18, 1939. The act placed the library under the administration of the Archivist of the United States and authorized the Archivist to accept from Franklin D. Roosevelt "such collection of historical material" as he shall donate and to acquire by "gift, purchase or loan" other collections related to and contemporaneous with Roosevelt's own holdings. It also created a board of trustees empowered to accept and receive gifts for the library and pledged the faith of the United States "to provide such funds as may be necessary for the upkeep of the said Library and the administrative expenses and costs of operation thereof, including the preservation and care of historical material."9 Today's Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute is the legal successor of the original board of trustees. While it would not be formalized until 1955 with the Presidential Libraries Act, this measure marks the true beginnings of today's presidential libraries system.

Additional Collections for the Library

Always the collector, the President immediately began to seek to enlarge the library's holdings. In remarks at a dinner with the library's trustees on February 4, 1939, he planted the idea that the papers of New Dealers who worked with his administration belonged in the library:

Now, I hesitate to speak to any of them and suggest that they could supplement this collection that is to go to Hyde Park by the presentation of their own papers and yet I am perfectly certain that sitting here at the table are good people, who, perhaps may not have any other disposition of their personal papers in mind, who may not wish to leave them to their own children, who may not have some particular college library to give them to. . . . I am in great hopes that a large amount of other material will find its way to this library at Hyde Park.

Later that year, and still almost two years before the library opened, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote to FDR's secretary, Missy LeHand, directing that all of his correspondence, memorandums, and papers from the New Deal era be permanently deposited in the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library.10 A grateful FDR responded to the chief justice, flattering him with the opinion that Frankfurter's papers "will give a far better picture of our day than mine because you, in your work, have had so much greater opportunity to analyze and suggest on paper, whereas, I have been compelled to work, in great part, by word of mouth or through the medium of stodgy orders, proclamations and political speeches."11

FDR reached out to organizations as well as individuals. In March 1940 he wrote to Molly Dewson, head of the women's division of the Democratic National Committee:

There are in existence, so far as I know, no records of Republican or Democratic National Committees in Presidential campaigns. Automatically when a new chairman takes over the old records have been destroyed. The new Library at Hyde Park covers in general the period from 1910 to 1940 but the great bulk of the papers will relate to the years 1932 to 1940. It occurs to me that it would be a magnificent thing if the Democratic National Committee could deposit in the Library the more important of its records beginning in the year 1932. Or course, there is a lot of duplicate material and the bulk could be reduced probably by at least 50%. It is, however, of real historical importance for the future and would be the only source book of its kind.12

As a result, those papers were deposited in the library. They amount to 348 linear feet and are an important research source.

The Name

Finding a name for the new institution presented something of a quandary. The new enterprise was to be a museum for the public, and it was certain to be an important archive for historical researchers. Critics, of course, protested that the President was building a memorial to himself. FDR's committee of scholars, known as the Executive Committee, was chaired by Waldo Leland, director of the American Council of Learned Societies. Its task was to assist him with planning the scope of the building, its equipment, the organizational needs, and technical concerns about collections care and display. Officially at least, the question of the name was also left to them. Several names were proposed, discussed, and rejected as not being sufficiently indicative of the library's scope and purpose. The committee observed that in the case of other libraries that had been built around collections of former Presidents—notably the Rutherford B. Hayes Memorial Library, the Hoover Library on War, Revolution, and Peace (an institution distinct from the Hoover Library in West Branch, Iowa), and the Harding Memorial Library—the institution became its donor's namesake. As for the choice of the word "library," the advisers and the President, not surprisingly, looked to the past for precedent as well. The library had, for centuries, denoted the gentleman's place of study as well as the name for his collections, which often included papers and artifacts as well as books. Accordingly, the Executive Committee recommended to the President that the proposed library at Hyde Park be called the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library.13

Archivist R.D.W. Connor reports in a 1940 article in American Archivist that when the committee's recommendation was presented to him, Mr. Roosevelt earnestly demurred. He reportedly at first preferred that it should be called the "Hyde Park Library," but objection was made that this name was not sufficiently distinctive since there were six other Hyde Parks in the United States and Hyde Park, New York, already had a public library bearing that name. "Crum Elbow Library" was next suggested since Crum Elbow was a part of the original tract of land from which the site of the library would be carved. The President, however disingenuously, apparently thought this suggestion "swell." But nobody else agreed with him, and the President found himself unanimously overruled by a committee entirely of his own choosing.14

Designing the Building

The President took a personal interest in the library's Dutch colonial architectural design, which symbolized for him "a quality of endurance against great odds—a quality of quiet determination to conquer obstacles of nature and obstacles of man." The library was the most important of a number of Dutch colonial stone buildings built under his direction; these included his own Top Cottage, Eleanor Roosevelt's Val-Kill, new federal post offices, and schools and libraries built throughout the Hudson Valley by Roosevelt's New Deal agencies. He loved this style because he found in it "an architecture which is good in . . . that it does not of necessity follow the whims of the moment but seeks an artistry that ought to be good . . . for all time to come. We are trying to adapt the design to the historical background of the locality and to use . . . the materials, which are indigenous to the locality itself. Hence the fieldstone for Dutchess County."

FDR took a tremendous interest in every detail of the planning for his new library. He worked at first with Henry A. Toombs, an architect in Georgia with whom he had worked on the design of Top Cottage and the Little White House in Warm Springs. In 1938 Louis Simon, head architect of the General Services Administration and supervising architect of the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C., replaced Toombs. With both Toombs and Simon, Roosevelt shared his concept of a building in the form of an open square of natural fieldstone, one story in height with a high pitched roof, built in his favored Dutch colonial style.

Insistent that ample space be made available not only for the papers but for the vast collection of naval art, ship models, and gifts that he had accumulated, FDR ordered surveys of his holdings. Fred Shipman of the National Archives, who would later become the first director of the library, assessed the archival holdings, while Laurence Vail Coleman, director of the American Association of Museums, surveyed the museum objects. Their examinations were limited to what was on hand and viewable (mostly in Washington) and did not include accurate estimates of materials located in the Roosevelt mansion in Hyde Park and the New York townhouse or the gubernatorial materials in Albany. Using the information gathered, Simon began work on the preliminary sketches. FDR had already determined the external appearance of the building, and he took an active role in planning the interior as well— the stack space, exhibit rooms, the research room, and his own study.15

He specified separate rooms for his naval collection and a room for the use of the local historical society. But neither Roosevelt nor his committee had any idea in 1938 of the vast growth that the collections were to undergo or the great crowds of visitors who were to put such a strain on the accommodations for them. They could only guess at probable increases and did not even imagine that President Roosevelt's term of office might extend beyond January 1941. Nonetheless Roosevelt recognized early on the need for eventual expansion: he at first sketched out a series of U-shaped additions to the rear of the open square. In 1942 he made the sketches that were realized in 1969 when the library was expanded to accommodate the Eleanor Roosevelt papers and a gallery in her honor.

The level of Roosevelt's involvement becomes clear from Archivist Robert Conner's recollection of a 1939 White House meeting with the President and Waldo Leland. At the time, the three of them discussed many of the particulars in regard to the library, including what kind of containers they should use for the documents; ultimately, the President specified even the design of document boxes. He also took a personal interest in the problem of exhibiting the naval art, ship models, presidential gifts, gadgets, and trinkets. Leland expressed some concern that they might be allotting too much space to the museum functions of the library. To this the President replied, "Well, you know if people have to pay a quarter to get into the library they will want to see something interesting inside."16

Not everyone was pleased with the President's decision to build his own library and museum. Mr. Clarence Boothby, a resident of Chicago, wrote to FDR on December 13, 1938:

Amid recent press reports that you plan to give your Hyde Park estate to the United States Government as a permanent memorial to yourself, provided the government and citizens will supply suitable endowment and moneys for perpetual upkeep, please accept the following humble opinion of the writer: Future generations should be allowed to forget class hatred, graft, crooked NLRB, waste, court packing, the social security fraud, communistic appointees, John Lewis, Bridges, Perkins, Earle, Guffey, Barry, Black, Murphy, Wagner, Etc., Etc.,—the TVA scandal and all the rest of your ridiculous and unworkable alphabet soup.17

But even in Roosevelt's day, the library's champions outnumbered its detractors. Archibald MacLeish, then Librarian of Congress, spoke at the laying of the library's cornerstone. He began his speech by remarking that some might consider him an inappropriate speaker for such an occasion since many believed that the material destined for the Roosevelt Library rightfully belonged in the Library of Congress. He eloquently made the case for the presidential library instead:

The material which is to be deposited here is material which any custodian of records, any keeper of books, would wish if he could to set apart as a single and separate collection, no matter where it was placed or in what company. It is material, which forms, by the necessities of its nature, a single and homogeneous whole, and material, which no librarian would treat in any other manner. What distinguishes these papers is the fact that they are not merely the papers written in a particular sequence of years, nor the papers written by and to and about a particular man, but the papers of a Time—the papers which speak of, and speak for, and therefore recreate, a Time which the mind and memories of man can recognize. . . . They belong by themselves, here in this river country, on the land in which they came."18

The Library Opens

The formal dedication of the new Franklin D. Roosevelt Library took place on June 30, 1941, only eight days after Hitler invaded Russia. Given the gravity of the times, it was a simple ceremony with the President and his guests gathered on the flagstone walk in front of the new building. Immediately in front of them an army bugler stood, near the flagpole, accompanied by two uniformed troopers acting as the honor guard for the American flag fixed in a position to be hoisted. Newspaper reporters and photographers stood waiting at a respectable distance.

John McShain, the contractor who had supervised the construction, announced that the building was now completed and handed a large brass key to Frank Walker, treasurer of the corporation that had raised the money for the building from private contributions. After a few brief remarks, Walker turned the key over to Archivist Connor, who accepted the building in behalf of the American people. The President closed the ceremony with a brief statement on how happy he was to see the building so well constructed and hoped it would last for many generations. FDR then raised his arm toward the flag and ordered it hoisted. As the flag was slowly raised, the assembled crowd sang "God Bless America."19

Library officials had no idea how many visitors to expect, but whatever the number of visitors, they would only come to the library to look—not to work. Roosevelt had by then abandoned his plans to retire to a quiet life working on his collections in Hyde Park and remained instead President of a nation that seemed destined for another war. Although between three and four thousand books and some fifteen thousand cubic feet of records had been received at Hyde Park, the bulk of the material that would form the library remained in Washington. In a June 22, 1941, interview for the Hudson Valley Sunday Courier, library director Fred Shipman admitted, "We have nothing to excite scholars yet. We have important segments but we haven't continuous records of any one subject." He added that the staff hoped to complete the earlier files and open them to the public reasonably soon. Reasonably soon would be May 1, 1946, thirteen months after FDR's death. Only then was the library's research room opened to scholars.

This made the museum the public focus of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in its first years. The first twenty-five cents was collected on July 1, the day after the formal dedication. According to a Washington Post article dated July 2, 1941, the first ticket buyer was a lifelong Republican, Floyd B. Avery of White Plains, NY. "I'm a Republican but I think it is a very interesting collection," he commented after viewing the exhibits of the President's papers, books, and mementos. On its first business day the library took in 161 admission fees, a cash total of $40.25.20

Just what did Mr. Avery see on that summer day he spent in Hyde Park? The President's Room in the corner of the first floor suggests the living room of a comfortable home. The fireplace is faced with antique Delft tiles, each carefully placed in its location according to FDR's plan. The walls were painted a subtle green-grey, the woodwork a slightly darker shade. Books were everywhere: in the secretary opposite the fireplace, in the built-in bookcases that flanked the secretary, in great piles on two tables near FDR's desk, just as he left them during his last visit. In these early days, the President himself came and went frequently (and privately) by a door at the left of the fireplace.

The historical society's room, the Dutchess County Room, was in the northeast corner of the building. A colored map of Dutchess and Putnam counties hung on the east wall, and a newspaper page of twelve scenes of Hyde Park in the late nineteenth century hung opposite. A rather slim collection of books on Dutchess County was housed in a cabinet on the other side of the room.

The collection in the naval exhibition room was quite an awesome sight. Some 125 ship models, most of them of early sailing vessels, were on display on side and center tables. The walls, covered with oyster-white monk's cloth, were filled with paintings and colored prints of marine scenes, battles and famous vessels. In the main exhibition room, lighted cases showed some of the things, often of considerable intrinsic value, that had been sent as gifts and tributes to the President from all over the world. In smaller cases on either side of the main entrance were original drafts of the President's addresses, including his speech accepting the 1932 presidential nomination; his "I hate war" speech delivered in 1936; and the "Victory Dinner" speech from 1937. Other cases contained stamp albums selected from the President's large collection and photographs of the President and his family.

Two galleries, the "oddities" and the vehicle rooms, were located in the basement. The latter contained old sleighs, carriages, and two iceboats—FDR's own Hawk and the famous Icicle that won his uncle, John Roosevelt, many an iceboat title. A presidential memorandum for Library Director Shipman dated just eighteen days before the opening reflected FDR's personal and all-encompassing interest in the museum: "I enclose two copies of prints enlarged from a Kodak, showing me at the helm of the ice yacht HAWK. I suggest that you have this framed and hung on the wall over the spars. It can be labeled 'FDR at helm of ice yacht HAWK off Roosevelt Point, 1905'."21

Officially named the "Gift Room," the things displayed in the "oddities room" were chosen from the thousands of gifts presented to the President and Mrs. Roosevelt by admirers from all parts of the world. Some were indeed quite odd, such as a seven-foot-high papier-mâché sphinx carrying FDR's visage, complete with cigarette holder. It was presented to him at the 1939 Washington Gridiron Dinner when he was dodging questions about running for a third term. Many gifts represent the work of talented amateurs, while the finest designers and craftsmen made others. Nicknamed "oddities" by the President, they ran the gamut from the artistic to the homely, clever, patriotic, personal, serious, witty, or broadly humorous. No matter what was sent to the President, he accepted it in the spirit it was given. FDR took tremendous interest in these tokens of affection and proudly displayed them in the museum.

FDR Working in the Library

During his trips home to Hyde Park, President Roosevelt managed to spend as much time as he could in the library, sorting and classifying his records and memorabilia. It was wartime then, and from his study in the library, Roosevelt delivered several of his famous "fireside chats." And he loved to show the place to important visitors. Winston Churchill, China's Madame Chiang Kai-shek, Princess Martha of Norway, King George of Greece— all signed the blue leather guest book FDR kept in his study.

The President worked closely with Margaret Suckley, his cousin and close confidante, who was appointed a member of the library staff in September 1941. She as well as other staff members cataloged and arranged the documents, books, and objects that he sent to the library. Suckley kept a diary, which is an invaluable record of those early years, a time when the President of the United States conducted the nation's business from his presidential library. But most of the time, he conducted private matters here, finding respite in the minutiae of his collections. See, for example, her entry for September 13, 1943: "The P. came Friday morning in the midst of it all—I got him a seat cushion off one of the big blue chairs and ensconced him on the floor in front of a cupboard—He worked there for an hour and a half while I flew around getting things done, my desk piled high, two trucks and a table full of things waiting to be taken care of."22 During his many visits in the spring of 1944, the President and Miss Suckley worked on a "pile of things." As she recorded on May 23, 1944:

The President sat on the yellow covered sofa, his feet on the new stand made down in the shop. . . . I suggested the new Persian rug from the Shah of Persia for his room at the Library and while he was resting, we all got to work at it. . . . It took 10 years to make this rug and it is supposed to be worth $20,000. There are 50 knots to the square inch. It feels like velvet, has every possible color and harmonizes with everything—It is really beautiful and perfect for this particular room.23

On April 14, 1945, Miss Suckley's diary carries the final entry recording this remarkable era: "One of the hardest things I have had to do was coming to this Library on Tuesday morning, with the realization that F will never be seen here again, and that his body lies at rest in the garden." She expressed what everybody in Hyde Park knew:

The most interesting period of this library is over, the period of the President's association with it. What we must try to do is make it the kind of place the President wanted it to be—His spirit is here, and when I get a sort of helpless, "what's the use in doing anything" feeling, I can feel his thought that no matter what happens, one must never give up—that was his motto and the reason of his greatness. The president's room I hope will remain as it is always—for he fixed it this way, placed the furniture, had the pictures hung, etc.24

It has not been difficult for subsequent library staff to fulfill Miss Suckley's wish because the Roosevelt presence remains forever vital. Thousands of researchers, millions of museum visitors, and hundreds of staff have worked at and visited the library since it opened sixty years ago. As they have studied and viewed the documents, recordings, photographs, and objects, a few may take for granted the astounding collection of material gathered in the small fieldstone building. But none are unaffected by the force of Roosevelt's character. It is seen in the choices he made for his library, but even more so in the spirit of reform and public service documented in the papers and artifacts housed there.

Creating the Future at the Roosevelt Library

At the start of this new century, FDR's vision for the library seems particularly prescient. He saw it not as a place of antiquarian interest but first and foremost as a resource for new generations seeking to create their own futures. And he was right. The political and economic challenges of the 1930s and 1940s resonate regularly on national and international policy agendas: Social Security, welfare reform, the regulation of private industry, and the rise of new democracies out of totalitarian regimes, to name a few. The historical origin of these debates is now more than a half-century past, but we have a new challenge. If the library is to continue to provide lessons from the past, it is incumbent upon us now to begin the hard work of recommitting ourselves to Roosevelt's vision in order to meet the demands of new generations. That work has already begun.

With the Internet and other innovations in communications technology of the past few decades, the library's work moved beyond the walls of the building in Hyde Park in ways that Roosevelt never envisioned. The library's web site ( is the most significant new way that the archival collections of the Roosevelt Library are made accessible to scholars, students, teachers, and the general public. The web site was developed in partnership with Marist College and IBM and reaches nearly one million researchers, students, and educators every month. This number was unimaginable in the 1940s. But even email—and before that the telephone—transformed the way research is done. Today the archives staff answers more than three thousand inquiries every year from telephone and email, a number that far outstrips the six hundred or so researchers who visit in person.

An avid reader of history, the President was also an inveterate collector with a curator's eye and a librarian's love of detail. Throughout his life he built personal collections that included fifteen thousand books, two hundred naval ship models, naval prints and paintings, and large collections of stamps, presidential gifts, and memorabilia. It is therefore not surprising that he created a public museum as well as a research archive; the Roosevelt Library was to be a showcase for his personal collections as well as a home for his papers. Visitors still love to see Roosevelt's ship models and the memorabilia he called his "oddities," but they also expect more. New technologies help do this better, but the task at hand is deeper than that.

For it is most dramatically in the museum that the work has changed from Roosevelt's day. This is because museums have changed. A half-century ago, museums were exhibit halls and repositories for collections: some were virtually unchanged from the private "cabinets of curiosities" of eighteenth-century gentlemen out of which our first museums grew. Today museums are expected to provide "interpretation," to tell a story, to link objects together in a way that educates and illuminates—whether it be the narrative of an era or of the life of an extraordinary President and first lady.

Today's museum visitors (especially our student visitors and their teachers) come expecting to learn about the Roosevelts and their place in history—and they bring with them learning styles that are shaped by the electronic world of television and computers. Just as the Internet and computers are revolutionizing historical research, so too is technology transforming the best museums. That is why the FDR Library is now embarked on a series of bold new initiatives to update the exhibits and programming.

In cooperation with the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute and the National Park Service (which administers the Roosevelt Home and Val-Kill), NARA is building an exciting new visitor and education/conference center and renovating the library for new and expanded exhibition space. The new center will be named for Roosevelt's second vice president, Henry A. Wallace and is intended to serve both as an orientation center for visitors to the Roosevelt historic site and a conference facility for scholarly gatherings and national and international policy meetings, some hosted by heads of state. It will house a 150-seat auditorium and three classrooms with a capacity of sixty students each. The classroom spaces can be transformed into one grand hall suitable for large social events. The facility will also be available to the community for public meetings.

A special high-tech conference room will be equipped with state-of-the-art videoconferencing equipment so that activities in Hyde Park may include participants at locations around the world. This will be particularly useful to the Roosevelt Institute, which sponsors Study Centers in the Netherlands, Moscow, and South Korea. The institute will also hold its biennial United States Four Freedoms Award ceremony in the center and will be able to broadcast the ceremony to remote locations. In short, the new center will enable us to provide educational programs commensurate with Roosevelt's original vision.

For the more than 125,000 members of the general public who visit the Roosevelt Library and National Historic Site, the center gives us the opportunity to offer a comprehensive orientation to the Roosevelt world in Hyde Park—complete with a video orientation and introductory exhibits. In addition to their introduction to the library and home, visitors will also be able to buy tickets and receive directions to Val-Kill (Eleanor Roosevelt's cottage) and Top Cottage, Franklin Roosevelt's retirement home that will open to the public this year.

Inside the original library, changes are afoot as well. We are working with the Roosevelt Institute to plan a new changing exhibit gallery that will allow us to explore topical and timely issues, show more of our historical collections, and develop thematic programming related to exhibits. That gallery will also permit the library for the first time to offer major traveling shows, a facility that is sorely needed today.

Equally exciting, in the next phase of the redevelopment program, the library will reconceptualize the permanent exhibitions in the main floor galleries. Sweeping changes will allow visitors to literally step back in time, to put themselves in the era of the New Deal and World War II and experience for themselves the challenges and accomplishments of the Roosevelts and Americans of their generation.

These are exciting times at the Roosevelt Library; they are also historic times. For these essential projects will continue into the twenty-first century Roosevelt's own vision for his library as a living institution dedicated to a belief in the capacity of people "so to learn from the past that they can gain in judgement in creating their own future."

See the related article:

Visit the FDR Library

Cynthia M. Koch is the director of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library. Lynn A. Bassanese is the director of public programs at the FDR Library.


1. Geoffrey Ward, "Future historians will curse as well as praise me," Smithsonian, December 1989, p. 58.

2. Ibid.

3. Samuel Morison's remarks at a dinner, Feb. 4, 1939, at the Hotel Carlton, Washington, DC, President's Personal File, FDR Library File, Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Hyde Park, NY.

4. Ward, "Future historians," p. 58.

5. President's remarks on the opening of the Roosevelt Library, June 30, 1941, Speech File, FDR Library.

6. Ward, "Future historians," p. 62.

7. Ibid.

8. R.D.W. Connor, "The Franklin D. Roosevelt Library," The American Archivist, April 1940, p. 89.

9. Donald R. McCoy, "The Beginnings of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library," Prologue: Journal of the National Archives 7 (Fall 1975): 145.

10. Felix Frankfurter to Missy LeHand, Nov. 20, 1939, President's Personal File, FDR Library File, FDR Library.

11. FDR to Frankfurter, Nov. 21, 1939, President's Personal File, FDR Library File, FDR Library.

12. FDR memo for Molly Dewson, Mar. 28, 1940, President's Personal File, FDR Library File, FDR Library.

13. Connor, "The Franklin D. Roosevelt Library," p. 87.

14. Ibid.

15. Waldo Leland, "The Creation of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library: A Personal Narrative," The American Archivist 18 (January 1955): 21.

16. Ibid.

17. Clarence Boothby to FDR, Dec. 13, 1938, President's Personal File, FDR Library File, FDR Library.

18. Remarks of Archibald MacLeish, Nov. 19, 1939, President's Personal File, FDR Library File, FDR Library.

19. Report on Groundwork of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library by Matthew M. Epstein, Mar. 15, 1941, President's Personal File, FDR Library File, FDR Library.

20. Newspaper clipping, Washington Post, July 2, 1941, President's Personal File, FDR Library File, FDR Library.

21. Presidential Memorandum for Mr. Shipman, June 12, 1941, President's Personal File, FDR Library File, FDR Library.

22. Geoffrey Ward, Closest Companion: The Unknown Story of the Intimate Friendship Between Franklin Roosevelt and Margaret Suckley (1995), p. 237.

23. Ibid., p. 316.

24. Ibid., pp. 423–424.


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