The Paper Trust

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These unscholarly items have, in some cases, achieved a kind of immortality in their own right—the collar of Roosevelt’s famous Scottie, Fala; the sign on Truman’s desk, T HE B UCK S TOPS H ERE ; John Kennedy’s rocking chair. They arc the items that, when displayed, bring in the tourists by thousands. While the historians, sitting shirt-sleeved in the research rooms and peering quizzically at the documents, may take little interest in the public thronging through the museum displays, the directors of the libraries do not scorn the sightseers. They reason that among the crowds of children in Snoopy T-shirts, Sears jeans, and Keds sneakers, smelling of Howard Johnson’s peppermint gum and Good and Plenty licorice, peering at the cases through Rexall sunglasses, there may be future Morisons and Schlesingers. (The tourists and the researchers do not see each other, but in the Johnson Library the sightseers will be able to see what the archivists are working on. The architect has made the stacks visible from the museum through a glass wall and has decreed that the papers be kept in eye-catching scarlet boxes.)

The libraries are the creations of an unusual collaboration. Each has been built by private subscription among the friends of a President (except for the Johnson Library, which Texas will pay for and own as part of its state university campus). The President so honored, on his retirement, deposits his papers in the library, and both building and contents become a gift to the people of the United States. The federal government then puts archivists to work in the role of whitecollar monks, guarding the precious manuscripts against the ravages of time, weather, chance, and desperate men.

 
 
 

With each succeeding Presidency the sheer volume of material has increased. It is estimated that George Washington wrote perhaps twenty-five thousand letters all told. By Franklin Roosevelt’s time the President’s own letters, plus the other documents he had collected during his public life, were measured in the linear feet of space they occupied when boxed and shelved. The total was nearly 2,500 feet—almost half a mile of such records. The Roosevelt Library did not confine itself simply to preserving the papers taken from the White House after Roosevelt’s death. Like the Presidential libraries that followed, it sought and accepted the manuscripts of the President’s coworkers and associates throughout his career in government. As a result the Roosevelt Library now has over twentyone million pages of manuscript on paper, after a quarter-century of growth. But the Kennedy Library, not yet open in its permanent quarters, already has more than seventeen million pages on paper, plus two and a half million on microfilm, representing an administration that lasted less than three years—in addition to a million and a half feet of motion-picture film and more than fifteen hundred sound recordings (both discs and tapes). The Johnson Library has thirty million pages on paper, 5,500,000 on microfilm, half a million photographs (compared to 93,052 in the Roosevelt Library, the nearest competitor in this field), 2,010,420 feet of motion-picture film, and 3,025 sound recordings for the ears of the future.

It is estimated that President Nixon’s records, even if he were to serve but one term, will exceed Johnson’s in volume. What the cost of a Nixon Library (already in the planning stages) will be is uncertain, but since the Roosevelt Library cost $367,000 to build, as against the several millions that the John F. Kennedy Library will require, it may be guessed that the amount will not be small. The expense of maintaining the six institutions—including the two not yet complete—in fiscal 1970 was approximately 1.8 million dollars in appropriated funds, which allowed for a personnel of 146. Certainly it seems a modest sum, nowadays, to care for donated buildings and lands worth many millions, and for papers whose value to history is presumed to be incalculable.

But are the treasures of the Presidential libraries actually priceless? There are some who doubt it, who fear that, if only because of their stupefying massiveness, the Presidential papers will not yield up the shape of the past to future historians in the way that fossil bones deliver the outlines of prehistoric giant lizards to knowledgeable paleontologists. Scattered widely over the country, some argue, the libraries will be visited only by pilgrims who are seeking the relics in the museums and by a handful of scholars who appear seasonally like wildfowl (at every academic vacation) to scrabble for the materials of dissertations. Will the Presidential libraries, in fact, become—in Columbia historian Henry Graff’s speculative phrase—the pyramids of our time? Or will they, as their staffs hope, help in the critical task of preserving the nation’s records so that it may learn wisdom by a searching look at all its yesterdays?