Employees of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) worked with the Obama White House Office of Records Management while the President was in office. NARA’s Presidential Materials Division takes some materials into its physical custody during an administration. Under the Presidential Records Act (1978), legal custody of all covered White House records automatically transfers to NARA the moment a president leaves office. About 95% of Obama’s records are electronic (no paper version), 5% paper. In addition to electronic and paper records, archivists also took physical custody of artifacts.
We can work to ensure archivists are in the images we use, literally as photos or in text, as we look at presidential records and change management. Their names are public, lauded by the Archivist of the United States in NARA’s 2018 awards ceremony. Let’s say them whenever we can. They helped establish the Obama Presidential Library unit which has operated within NARA since Barack Obama left office.
On February 20, 2019, tweets about a New York Times article, “The Obama Presidential Library That Isn’t,” went viral. Reporter Jennifer Schuessler looked at Barack Obama’s decision not to use private foundation money to construct a presidential library building `as presidents from Herbert Hoover through George W. Bush had done. News stories often reflect quotes from the users of records who focus on the traditional research room as an access point.
Some quotes Schuessler used resurfaced this week, one out of context, in an essay in LitHub. In “Everything You Need to Know About the Controversy Over Obama’s Presidential Library” (September 29, 2021) Walker Caplan wrote in LibHub that “Yesterday saw the groundbreaking of the Obama Presidential Center, former president Barack Obama’s presidential library in Jackson Park on Chicago’s South Side.”
But the ground breaking was not for a presidential library. That archival labor remains known only in small circles of knowledge professionals helps explain what Northeastern University professor Dan Cohen called in 2019 public confusion over Obama’s records. (Here’s how Obama’s records fit in with those of predecessors.) But another viral tweet shows how we can connect the past and present.
As Barack Obama prepared to speak at the ground breaking ceremony for his Presidential Center in Chicago a woman tweeted, “Today I received in the mail a letter from my mom. It was a photocopy of her phone-she wanted to share a picture that is on her phone with me….She photocopied her phone and mailed this to me.” I was glad to see most readers focused on her mother’s beautiful cursive writing rather than judging how she chose to share the image on her phone.
Although most of his White House records are electronic, President Barack Obama’s distinctive signature appears online on many paper documents. You can download this image from the Barack Obama Presidential Library, a NARA administrative unit which began operations under that name on January 20, 2017. NARA’s Presidential Materials Division employees contributed to making it available to you.
A President oversees records management at the White House while in office but materials covered by the Presidential Records Act automatically become the legal property of the National Archives at noon on January 20 as a presidential term ends. The property concept that Federal employees focus on sometimes seems blurred in news reports and op eds, such as one by Princeton history professor Julian Zelizer about the ground breaking ceremony for the private sector Obama Presidential Center.
Dr. Zelizer looks at the history of the presidential library system in the context of the Obama ground breaking. He writes, “As we now live in an era of disinformation, archivally fact-based interpretations of presidents are the best way for us to evaluate the dynamics of our democracy. Without the material deposited in these buildings, historians would not be able to accomplish this task.”
As NARA did with presidential records until 1981, some non-governmental entities still use Deposit Agreements, which NARA defines as “A legal document providing for deposit of historical materials in physical custody of an archival institution while legal title to the materials is retained by the donor.” A law passed in 1978–a 1974 law covers government ownership of Richard Nixon’s records–means U.S. presidents no longer deposit or donate covered White House records in presidential libraries through deed of gift. But that the National Archives automatically has legal control of them the moment the president leaves office.
The traditional system of presidential libraries started in 1939 with a man who could decide what to do with records he and his White House aides created and which to donate to the National Archives. For many observers the focus remains decisions (some made while in office) a former president makes about records. Another way to look at this is to center the law and the Constitution which NARA archivists up and down the ranks take an oath to defend.
You see President Obama speaking in front of the Constitution at a Naturalization Ceremony in the National Archives on December 15, 2015 as the Archivist of the United States, David Ferriero, NARA employees, and new citizens and their guests and family members listen. And First Lacy Michelle Obama speaking in the same place on June 18, 2014. The Obama White House legal staff worked closely with NARA’s General Counsel, Gary Stern, and his colleagues while in office. In January 2021, Gary spoke virtually to historians about presidential transitions after the passage of the 1978 records act.
A Twitter search for “presidential library” this week shows many news outlets and new media sites referring to the ground breaking for an Obama presidential library. But the Center will not house the library. The NARA employees who are processing the Obama records in the government’s Presidential Library unit currently work out of leased space in Hoffman Estates, Illinois. They later will move to other NARA leased or owned space, not the private Obama Presidential Center.
Part of the confusion online arises from the fact that each of the presidential libraries previously built with private funds and administered by NARA includes a museum. Joint Operating Agreements spell out space usage in a Presidential Library and Museum by the National Archives and by a president’s foundation. But no law requires a museum or even construction of a presidential library. That’s why inside the government the legal focus is on the transfer of custody to NARA as a President leaves office and the archival processing of records created in government service.
When Barack Obama spoke at the ground breaking ceremony for the Obama Presidential Center on Tuesday, he said its purpose is to focus on the future, not the past. In that context he correctly noted that people will not be coming to the site for archival research. He shared his vision for the Center but did not mention NARA, which holds and will continue to hold his presidential records in a separate facility. While this is on hold during the pandemic, NARA is committed to working with the Obama Foundation to digitize the 5% of his White House records that are paper. Some may be printouts of existing electronic records. NARA provides updates (September 9, 2021) on its Obama Presidential Library online.
Obama noted in his remarks that people will be coming to the museum in the privately operated Center to see “Michelle’s gowns.” NARA has agreed to lend some items from the Obama presidency, which it also holds as government property, to the museum for display. In 2013, the National Archives displayed one of Michelle Obama’s dresses, the one she wore on election night in 2008. To see why Tuesday’s ground breaking projects a private museum but not an archival facility, consider why Obama asked about his BlackBerry as the took office in 2009. And what library and information science students heard in a classroom in 2011.
More archivists work in academic settings, including with donated special collections, than in corporate or government settings. But all face transitions due to electronic record keeping. Accustomed to using a BlackBerry during the 2008 presidential campaign (such records are private, not governmental), Obama issued directives for use of technology to improve government operations. Photos show him using an iPad to read briefings but also discussing printed speech drafts with aides.
As Obama left office, CNN and other news sites featured workers in the White House shipping materials to Chicago for what then appeared would be a traditional presidential library constructed with private foundation money for NARA to house records. But with 95% of the materials (textual and audiovisual) electronic, the former President may have considered Return on Investment. And decided that existing NARA facilities were fine for housing the materials.
Library and information science students got a glimpse of budgetary issues from NARA’s perspective in 2011, when David Ferriero spoke at Catholic University in Washington, DC. David emphasized an urgent need to face electronic records issues. He described visiting the traditional presidential libraries and museums NARA operates. And noted how the cornfield and the Hoover home give a sense of space to the Library located where he once lived. But that as presidents die, fund raising to help maintain some library functions becomes increasingly challenging for the private foundations.
A long-term thinker who urges archivists to skate where the puck will be, not where it is, as hockey forward Wayne Gretzky recommended, Ferriero candidly discussed budget issues with CUA students in 2011 (38:35 mark at link). He said operating a system of presidential libraries consumes 25% of NARA’s budget (their holdings comprised 5% of the government records NARA then held). And that one study projected by 2035 the estimate for adding, then maintaining, separate presidential library buildings was 50% of NARA’s whole budget. He told students, “something’s gotta give.” You can explore the National Archives’ website to see its many other functions.
If you work with electronic records (intake, processing, preservation), you’ll understand why Obama decided not to raise money for a traditional presidential library but to leave them in regular NARA facilities. As NARA Chief Operating Officer Jay Bosanko also noted in a presentation to Susquehanna University students last summer, the present formula for presidential library construction and maintenance funding by a former president’s foundation requires a larger endowment share than in the past.
That Obama opted out–NARA has the archives, it can store the electronic and paper records in existing facilities–did not surprise me. For other reasons, NARA Office of Presidential Libraries archivists once processed another president’s records inside the National Archives but not at a presidential library. All history or political science research in Nixon’s White House records until 2007 reflected archival processing within regular NARA facilities. You see Karl Weissenbach, director, NARA Nixon Presidential Materials Staff, at right, first photo; supervisory archivist David Mengel; and NARA General Counsel Gary Stern with Dave Mengel at the opening in 2004 of Nixon administration records at NARA Archives 2 (College Park, MD). There was no Federal Nixon Presidential Library until 2007–33 years after Nixon resigned from office.
How U.S. presidents create records has changed greatly over the last 75 years. Journalism, traditional or new media, reflects the first rough draft of history. (In 2010, Jack Shafer explored the disputed origins of the phrase in Slate.) News articles may be static or dynamic, shared from years ago by members of the public on Twitter as frozen in time. Or updated periodically in follow up reports, just as a historian takes a fresh look at topics during the course of a career. But even the way we use published work has been changing since Obama took office.
The initial look at a presidency comes through collaboration between the U.S. Government Publishing Office (legislative branch) and the Office of the Federal Register within the National Archives (executive branch). In 2011, the Public Printer (GPO then still the Government Printing Office), Bill Boarman, the director of the Federal Register, Raymond Mosley, and his boss, Archivist David Ferriero, presented President Obama with the printed volumes of the Public Papers of the President. You see in the April 2011 video how Obama asked about the impact of technology. And how the GPO video showcases behind the scenes labor as much as the footage with Obama during the Oval Office presentation.
General Counsel Gary Stern once said of NARA in a records access context, “Come talk to us.” As in 2019 when I wrote for the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations about the Schuessler article in Making History Together with the National Archives, I remain hopeful that we can talk about these issues. Conversations about presidents and records can seem contentious online at times but I see many opportunities for working together.
Instead of focusing on “The Obama Presidential Library That Isn’t” let’s focus on “The Obama Presidential Library That Is.” And everyone looking at challenges on both sides of the virtual reference desk as they listen to questions and work to find solutions. Including students now in college classes and young professionals with fresh ideas about how to move forward. Let’s continue to affirm our values remain unchanged. And talk to each other about how we best can work together during changing times.