The Paper Trust

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To begin with, the Presidential libraries do not look like what they are. Each one is, in fact, a miniature Office of Public Records. And scholars who frequent such offices know that they are found in capital cities, in buildings that are heavy, ornamented, slowly discoloring monuments to bureaucrats dead and gone. The National Archives of the United States—America’s public records—are, to give one example, housed in an oversized Greek temple near the intersection of Constitution and Pennsylvania avenues in Washington, D.C.

But the six libraries for Presidential papers, which are administered by the National Archives and Records Service ( NARS ) of the General Services Administration, are something else. The Herbert Hoover Library modestly hugs the flat ground of West Branch, Iowa, calculatedly as unpretentious as Hoover’s nearby birthplace or the well-preserved blacksmith shop of his father, where he learned by observation the value of hard work and austerity. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s is in a building that blends neatly into the surroundings of a Hudson River gentleman’s estate at Hyde Park, New York. Harry S. Truman’s spreads itself on a grassy knoll not far from an expressway in Independence, Missouri, once the gateway to the limitless West, now a suburb of Kansas City. A tendency toward expansion becomes visible in Abilene, Kansas. There, in the Eisenhower Center, a library of Kansas limestone and imported marble faces a museum across an open court, flanked by a Place of Meditation (the word chapel being carefully avoided) and a set of monumental pylons presented by the Kansas Daughters of the American Revolution and the Soroptomist Clubs of Kansas. On the campus of the University of Texas at Austin a rectangular, flat-capped tower of pinkish travertine rises from what landscaping will turn into a spacious plaza. To be opened in May, 1971, it will contain the Lyndon B. Johnson Library; an adjoining, lower structure will house the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. Both are the architectural creation of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the firm that has designed many of the steel-and-glass temples of industry on New York’s Park Avenue. Fiscal and other uncertainties have delayed the construction of the John F. Kennedy Library, but eventually an oval-shaped cluster of buildings and malls in Cambridge, Massachusetts, will contain the library itself, the Harvard-affiliated Kennedy School of Government, and possibly a third “related facilities” building.

The new Presidential libraries raise a question: Can the documentary grain be separated from the documentary chaff?

These are a long way from the attics in which Presidents of a simpler day stored their papers; the contents of these libraries, too, are of a magnitude and complexity that stretch the imagination. First of all, there are the actual papers of the Executive Office—row on row, shelf after shelf, of the memoranda, letters, reports, studies, schedules, briefs, minutes, tables, abstracts, lists, projections, drafts, forms, authorizations, and all the infinite variety of documents through which Executive power somewhat soggily asserts itself. Next, there are the truly personal papers—the records of the human beings who briefly occupied the White House and of many members of their administrations. These comprise an incredible miscellany of mail, including thousands of letters from ordinary citizens who reach out to touch the majesty of office in revealing notes that beg, cajole, flatter, and often obscenely condemn the President. In addition there are clippings, photographs, tape recordings, reprints, motion-picture films, sketches, and such minor social records as greetings, invitations, acknowledgments, and farewells. Finally, there is a third category of material, housed in the museum that is part of each Presidential library- the objects accumulated by a President in office: paintings of (and sometimes by) the Chief Executive, statuettes, stamps, ship models, miniature weapons and vehicles, fishing tackle, stuffed animals, dishes, silverware, mugs and goblets, clothing for the First Lady, toys for the First Children, souvenirs of historic occasions, books, cartoons, prints and musical scores autographed by their creators, rugs, tapestries, plaques—the gifts of ordinary citizens and heads of state alike to the representative of the American people.