Prologue Magazine

Assembling the Obama Library

Fall 2015, Vol. 47, No. 3

By David S. Ferriero

Archivist of the United States


You've probably heard by now that President Obama will locate his presidential library in Chicago's South Side.

"All the strands of my life came together and I really became a man when I moved to Chicago," he said in revealing where he wanted his library to be.

"That's where I met my wife. That's where my children were born, and the people there, the community, the lessons that I learned, they are all based right in these few square miles," the President said.

Chicago's South Side is already home to the prestigious University of Chicago, the famed Museum of Science and Industry, and the Chicago White Sox, the President's favorite baseball team. It is also an area of Chicago with a wide gap in incomes, resulting in neighborhoods that range from impoverished to affluent.

The Obama Library will increase NARA's presence on Chicago's South Side, where we already have the National Archives at Chicago and a Federal Records Center.

When the library, to be built by the Barack Obama Foundation with private funds, is complete, it will be turned over to the National Archives and become the 14th in our system of presidential libraries that date back to Herbert Hoover's.

Like some of the other libraries, it will be part of a larger entity, in this case the Obama Presidential Center.

NARA already has begun its important role in this transition. We are working with the White House staff to determine the volume of textual, electronic, and audiovisual records, as well as the number of artifacts, that must be moved out of the White House by the end of Obama’s term on January 20, 2017.

And we will work with the Obama Foundation as it builds the library to ensure that it meets our environmental, archival, and safety standards.

On January 20, 2017, the records of President Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden become property of the government under the Presidential Records Act. The act was signed into law in 1978 in the wake of Watergate-era concern over the tradition of private ownership of presidential materials.

These records include textual and audiovisual records, along with artifacts, which include gifts to the President from heads of state as well as from private citizens from America and around the world.

The Department of Defense will provide both manpower and assistance in transporting the material, which will occur mostly by truck. However, NARA will be responsible for the security of the records and artifacts as they are shipped.

Also to be moved will be the electronic records of the Obama administration. The transfer of electronic records is one of the most complex and challenging parts of a presidential transition since the volume and variety of records generated or received by presidential administrations has increased exponentially.

These electronic records must be transferred from White House systems and verified and indexed for ingest into NARA's Electronic Records Archives, which allows processing of electronic records for eventual release through the National Archives Catalog.

While the electronic records will be housed in NARA’s data center, the other records and artifacts will go to a temporary location that will serve as a de facto library for several years until the library itself is built and ready for occupancy. NARA is currently working with the General Services Administration to procure a lease for a temporary facility in the Chicago area. Both this site, and the library itself, must meet NARA's requirements.

Our staff will seek to start moving materials from the White House in October or November of 2016.

When the library is complete, the Obama Foundation will turn it over to the Archives along with a payment equal to 60 percent of the construction costs to serve as an endowment to help maintain the facility.

The Obama facility will be operated by NARA with a staff of federal employees hired by this agency under Civil Service rules and headed by a director I will appoint in consultation with the President.

And once it's open, it will provide a history not only of the administration of the nation's 44th President but also of the times in which he served in the White House.

Join the Archivist at his own blog and visit the National Archives website.


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