Prologue Magazine

Roosevelt and His Library

Summer 2001, Vol. 33, No. 2

By Cynthia M. Koch and Lynn A. Bassanese

FDR visits library site 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

See also these related articles:

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.

Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.