Archives of Spin
By BENJAMIN HUFBAUER
The New York Times
January 20, 2007
SINCE Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the first federal presidential library – actually an archive and history museum – in 1941, each president has had a hand in developing his own memorial. The National Archives and Records Administration now oversees 11 presidential libraries that draw about two million tourists and thousands of scholars each year.
The uproar over President Bush’s plans to store his papers at Southern Methodist University has drawn new attention to the role of our system of presidential libraries. It is a system facing at least six challenges that need to be addressed by Congress, current and former presidents, host universities and the American public.
First, according to the Office of Presidential Libraries, it will take up to 100 years for the papers and records at the recent presidential libraries to be processed, primarily because of an explosion in the number of records created by the executive branch. The Roosevelt Library has 17 million pages of documents, while the Clinton Library has more than 76 million, but the number of archivists has not kept pace.
A wait of 100 years is unacceptable. To be able to learn from our history, scholars, journalists and the public need access to a majority of records in presidential libraries within 20 years after a president leaves office. To meet this challenge, the newer libraries must add a substantial number of archivists, as well as new processing protocols and systems.
Second, we should insist on historical accuracy, completeness and balance in the museums in presidential libraries. Although the federal government’s Office of Presidential Libraries states that the museum exhibits in presidential libraries should be accurate, historical amnesia is common in relation to a president’s mistakes and controversial policies. For example, the museum in the Reagan Library does not mention the Iran-contra scandal.
The exhibits in newer presidential libraries often amount to little more than extended campaign commercials in museum form, because the former president and his supporters essentially control the content. If a president wants a museum of political propaganda, let him make that plain by not asking the federal government to administer it, but instead raising the large endowment needed to run it as a private memorial.
Since 99 percent of visitors to presidential libraries are there for the museum exhibits, this is an important issue. The exhibitions in older libraries usually improve after the president dies and the power of his supporters slowly wanes, but it should not take 20 to 50 years to get historically accurate displays in taxpayer-supported museums.