The plans for the Obama Presidential Center are unfolding and highlight the vital role that the National Archives plays as custodian of our nation’s records. The following is an excerpt of an interview with David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States, concerning recent developments and announcements.
Will there be an Obama Presidential Library like the other 13 presidential libraries administered by the National Archives?
Not in the traditional sense of how presidential libraries are thought of today. The current plan is for the National Archives and the Obama Foundation to partner on an unprecedented effort to digitize all of the unclassified Obama White House paper records to provide the widest access possible for scholars and the public.
How was this decision made?
Before answering that question, it is important to provide some historical context. In 2016, we celebrated the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Franklin Roosevelt Presidential Library in Hyde Park, NY. The central tenets of the presidential library system were envisioned by FDR and remain to this day: the records and historical materials of the president belong to the American people; they should be held by the National Archives; and every effort must be made to provide the broadest possible access to them.
But FDR also raised private funds to construct his library, correct?
That is right. And he had a hand in designing it! That became the model for subsequent presidents to follow.
Are former presidents and their foundations required to raise funds and build a library?
No. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is required to house these materials in a NARA facility that meets our standards. On January 20, 2017, we took custody of the Obama administration materials, and they are currently stored in a temporary NARA facility.
Why did President Obama and the Obama Foundation decide not to include a presidential library as part of the Obama Presidential Center?
I am not privy to the reasons that went into this decision and would refer you to the Obama Foundation. I believe they weighed a number of factors including space constraints on the site, architectural considerations, and the cost of the building and the 60-percent endowment that is required by Congress. Moreover, as more records are born-digital, this transition is a natural one. In fact, the majority of the records of the 44th President came to NARA in digital form, and it is appropriate for his presidency to be reflected as the first complete digital presidential library in our nation’s history.
That sounds exciting. How will it work?
We are in the process of working out the details with the Obama Foundation, who have committed to raising the funds to support a NARA-led effort to digitize these materials. We are currently working with the Obama Foundation to gather information necessary to develop a project plan and schedule for this initiative.
Surely there are some original paper records and artifacts? Will the public have access to those the way they would at the other presidential libraries?
NARA will maintain custody of the artifacts and state gifts and will loan those to private institutions, including the Obama Museum, for display, provided those museums meet NARA standards. Public access to the born-digital and the digitized materials will primarily be online. However, we will work out a means by which researchers can access the paper records in a NARA research room when there is a compelling reason to do so.
How can we learn more?
We will provide updates through our Archives.gov website There are also two additional NARA websites. The first contains all of the photos and press releases of the Obama White House, which was converted on January 20, 2017 to obamawhitehouse.archives.gov. The second is a transitional Obama Library website: ObamaLibrary.gov.
Any final thoughts?
Let me conclude by stating how personally excited I am about the potential of this new model. It is our goal that this unprecedented effort will lead to wider access to the Obama records and artifacts in our care as we move from a model that requires travel to a brick-and-mortar facility to one that makes our history available globally via the Internet.