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A Living Library

March 2023
3min read

The Lyndon Baines Johnson Library, a handsome eightstory structure set in a wide plaza flanked by a long, low building which houses the LBJ School of Public Affairs, stands in the center of Austin. On the top floor, next to a replica of the White House Oval Office—as it looked when occupied by President Johnson—is Mrs. Johnson’s office. There, she talked about the library and the LBJ School of Public Affairs.

Would you tell me about the library?

The proposal for Lyndon to leave his papers to the University of Texas at Austin came to us very early, I think within a month after Lyndon was inaugurated in '65. They proposed to build a building to house them. I didn’t any more know what a presidential library was—who does? But Lyndon sort of delegated that to me as he did a lot of things, and he said, “Okay, you learn a lot about it and you tell me.”

In the beginning we were sentimental. We thought about having his library at his alma mater [Southwest Texas University], because they, too, soon came forward with a request. But the University of Texas at Austin had a good deal more capacity to bring it into being. And then they proposed to start a School of Public Affairs, and that was the selling point with Lyndon.

He was particularly interested in that?

Absolutely. It was an unending disappointment to him that when he was looking for somebody to serve in a Cabinet post or as head of a government agency, and he would ask the staff to recommend three or four people, they always came up with people who were graduates of Harvard, Yale, or Princeton or of a small nucleus of schools on the far West Coast—

Texas wasn’t represented?

The whole Southland, the whole Middle West, the whole Southwest was sparsely represented, and the Lord didn’t pass out brains that unevenly. And He didn’t pass out patriotism and vigor and will and capacity to serve your country with that uneven a hand. But people got a better preparation at some of those schools—I guess we had to wind up admitting it—so to start a school that could hopefully offer opportunities to students of this region, that had a lot of appeal for Lyndon.

Where did you go to learn about presidential libraries?

I went to—I’m trying to think which was the first one- I dare say it was Hyde Park, which has unending appeal to me. I had already been there two or three times, but I went looking at it from a different vantage point. It soon dawned on me that it was in large part a museum and that John Q. Public and his wife and children came in by the thousands while the researchers—they did indeed come, but they came in by driblets.

Then I went to see President Truman’s. That was during his lifetime and he gave me what he called the “five-dollar tour. ” And I went to President Eisenhower’s, and [later] to President Hoover’s.

At each place I learned something. For instance, at President Eisenhower’s, well, I wanted ours to be more accessible. I didn’t feel that it had the use, use, use that I would have liked ours to have. And then I liked the idea of being on a university campus. I think it was about midsummer of ’65 that we reached the decision to give it to the University of Texas at Austin.

And then did work start fairly soon on the building?

No, the next thing was to select an architect, and we had to sort of start all over. We just took out a list of outstanding architects and we went building-looking. And I also found out what prima donnas architects were.

We wound up with Skidmore, Owings and Merrill with Gordon Bunshaft working with Max Brooks. We have also wound up with an echo of the Beinecke [Library] at Yale; we too have a huge glass front that extends a good many stories, and the papers that you see are housed in handsome red leather boxes with a gold presidential seal.

How would you define the library’s purpose?

First, it’s a research facility. We house all of Lyndon’s papers—you can’t get librarians to throw anything away- and the papers of a good many of the people who were his working associates or friends during those years. And then we have oral histories which have turned out to be a marvelous source for filling in the gaps. I remember being uncertain about those at first.

You didn’t think oral history fit in?

I just wondered about the validity of it. Everybody remembers differently, you know. It’s like asking the blind man what an elephant is like. It depends on where he touches him. But I found myself once at lunch sitting next to Allan Nevins, the historian, and he was so glowingly in favor of it that I was convinced. And now we have about seven hundred on the shelf completed.

Second, the library is a visual picture, with its displays, of what that piece of history was like—the ’60’s and the decades before when Lyndon was in Congress. So it’s more of a museum, to my thinking. It serves many more people as a museum than the research part does. Then—and this is what Lyndon was determined it should be—we are a lively, vigorous ongoing center for the study of today’s problems.

How do you do that?

We have symposia. Civil rights will always be one of the most dramatic ones we ever did, because it was almost Lyndon’s last public appearance. He died about five or six weeks later, and all during it he was really just chewing those nitroglycerin pills [for his angina] like they were Life Savers.

And then we’ve done one on energy—energy and the environment and where they clash. Now, when I think that was several years ago, I’m right proud of it. The symposia are the library’s new life. It makes me flinch whenever I hear people say “monument to your husband” or something like that, because I like to think of this place, and I know he did, as an ongoing, useful part of the life of this state and this region.

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