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Important Historical Facts About Presidential Libraries

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On Thursday, all five living presidents, major U.S. political figures, world leaders, and spectators gathered to celebrate the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas, TX. While his presidency was marred by periods of intense political division, politicians were able to put their differences aside for at least one day.

The George W. Bush Presidential Center is the third presidential library and museum to be erected in the state of Texas, following Lyndon B. Johnson and George H.W. Bush. Texas has the most presidential libraries of any state in the U.S. —  followed by California with two.

Presidential libraries are not libraries in the traditional sense. You cannot go to the George W. Bush Presidential Library and check out a book. They are facilities that archive and preserve documents and artifacts of a president and his administration. What is preserved at a presidential library is available to the public to see and study because presidential libraries and museums are public property and belong to the American people.

Here are some important facts about the history of presidential libraries in the United States:

Where It All Began…

Franklin D. Roosevelt believed that presidential documents were an important part of the nation’s heritage and spearheaded efforts to preserve evidence of the presidency for future generations. Up until that point, presidential papers were destroyed, sold for profit, ruined by poor storage conditions, or were simply lost to history.

President Roosevelt donated his personal and presidential papers to the federal government in 1939, during his second term in office. He also donated a portion of his estate in Hyde Park, NY, where his library and museum would be built. This began a tradition that would carry on with every president that followed.

Evolution of Law

In 1955, Congress passed the “Presidential Libraries Act,” which established a system where presidential libraries would be privately erected, but federally maintained. The bill encouraged — not required — presidents to donate documents during their time in office to be archived and preserved for public access.

Up until 1978, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) persuaded the president to donate private and official records for preservation. It was the belief of presidents, scholars, and legal professionals that records created by the president and his staff were the property of the president and his to take with him when he left office.

However, the Presidential Records Act of 1978 established that official records that chronicle the constitutional, statutory, and ceremonial duties of the president during his tenure in the Oval Office are the property of the U.S. government. Now, when a president leaves office the Archivist of the United States — the head of NARA — assumes custody of these documents. Presidential libraries were allowed to continue as the repository for presidential records.

Additional changes were made in 1986 with a revision to the Presidential Libraries Act. Private endowments linked to the size of the library are now required and are used to offset a portion of the cost of maintenance for the facility.

Did you know?

The George W. Bush Presidential Center is the thirteenth presidential library and fourteenth museum to be established in the U.S. However, since FDR began the tradition there have been twelve presidents — counting FDR, but not counting President Barack Obama — who have passed through the White House.

So, why are there thirteen libraries and fourteen museums? One reason is because Richard Nixon has two locations. Nixon has a library and museum in College Park, Maryland and Yorba Linda, California. Also, Herbert Hoover, who was in office before FDR, has a presidential center dedicated to him as well.