Campus presidential libraries don't always tell the whole story

A campus-affiliated presidential library may not be named for an alum

A college's decision to affiliate with a presidential library depends heavily on a president's legacy, Jarrett Carter writes for Education Dive. 

The construction of the first presidential library took place in 1939, when President Franklin Roosevelt commissioned a library to house items he believed were worthy of inclusion in the country's archival history. Since then, the federal government has legislated for presidential libraries to be privately financed by outgoing presidents. The National Archives and Records Administration then takes over, with operational costs covered by private funds.

To be an institutional partner for a presidential library, colleges and universities must submit bids to foundations incorporated by former presidents or supporters. Most recently, the University of Chicago secured a bid for the Obama Presidential Center, which will be located in the city's Jackson Park.

 Presidential libraries serve a number of purposes, such as:

  • Headquarters for policy and research development;
  • Office space for founders or support organizations;
  • Public exhibits; and
  • Spaces for campus and community lectures.

While presidential libraries provide many opportunities to expand a college's reach and influence, the president with whom a library is associated doesn't always reflect the college's interests. According to University of Louisville professor Benjamin Hufbauer, a presidential library's location is usually related to the namesake leader in some way. However, some colleges distance themselves from presidents who would seemingly be a good fit.

The George W. Bush Presidential Center would have made sense at Yale University, the president's alma mater. But it's actually on Southern Methodist University's campus, where first lady Laura Bush went to college. Yale, Carter writes, may have opposed having the library on its campus because of George W. Bush's (R) controversial presidency. Similarly, Duke University said no to a presidential center in honor of law school alum Richard Nixon (R) because of scandals that occurred during his presidency. 

Campus libraries diversify to survive

Some presidential libraries also gloss over negative aspects of a president's leadership. But Hufbauer believes that for all the effort that colleges and universities invest in partnerships with presidential libraries, these centers should more accurately depict presidential history.   

"It's kind of like a mini-Smithsonian, and when you go there, you normally you think you're going to get history and you're going to learn from them. If presidents want a museum of advertisement, don't turn it over to the federal government" (Carter, Education Dive, 8/3).


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