Larry J. Hackman: 6 questions for the new congress about presidential libraries





[Larry J. Hackman is the former director of the Truman Presidential Museum and Library. He lives in Kansas City.]

... Unfortunately, presidential libraries most often receive widespread attention when controversy is generated by tangential matters, such as the Bush policy center, in the excitement over a new library, or when a president is buried at one of them. Important underlying issues get lost in the hubbub. A thoughtful congressional oversight hearing on these matters, one not driven by questions about a Bush library, is long overdue. With new chairpersons named for the relevant subcommittees, we can hope that this will be forthcoming.

Here in my view are six issues in which the public has a stake. For the most part, concerns are greatest for more recent libraries.

(1) Whether the National Archives, a small agency with other priorities to protect, can exercise sufficient coordination of the libraries, given the power of former presidents and their supporters, even long after a presidency.

(2) The “hidden-hand” influence of private foundations that supplement federal funds, especially for exhibits and educational programs. The libraries are overly dependent on these “partners,” and far too little is known about their influence.

(3) The huge document-processing backlogs that deprive us of timely access to our history. The high promise of the post-Watergate Presidential Records Act is unfulfilled.

(4) The overly biased interpretation in exhibits, the chief feature of these libraries for most visitors.

(5) The absence of collaboration among the 11 presidential libraries, each focused on one president. Hence, we miss traveling exhibits and educational programs on issues that cut across presidencies, as almost all do.

(6) The impact of library Web sites on how people around the world, especially students and teachers, understand the presidency and our democratic system.

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