Benjamin Hufbauer: Archives of Spin

Roundup: Talking About History

[Benjamin Hufbauer, a professor of art history at the University of Louisville, is the author of “Presidential Temples: How Memorials and Libraries Shape Public Memory.”]

SINCE Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the first federal presidential library — actually an archive and history museum — in 1941, each president has had a hand in developing his own memorial. The National Archives and Records Administration now oversees 11 presidential libraries that draw about two million tourists and thousands of scholars each year.

The uproar over President Bush’s plans to store his papers at Southern Methodist University has drawn new attention to the role of our system of presidential libraries. It is a system facing at least six challenges that need to be addressed by Congress, current and former presidents, host universities and the American public.

First, according to the Office of Presidential Libraries, it will take up to 100 years for the papers and records at the recent presidential libraries to be processed, primarily because of an explosion in the number of records created by the executive branch. The Roosevelt Library has 17 million pages of documents, while the Clinton Library has more than 76 million, but the number of archivists has not kept pace.

A wait of 100 years is unacceptable. To be able to learn from our history, scholars, journalists and the public need access to a majority of records in presidential libraries within 20 years after a president leaves office. To meet this challenge, the newer libraries must add a substantial number of archivists, as well as new processing protocols and systems....

Finally, President Bush’s 2001 executive order limiting access to the records in presidential library archives needs to be overturned. This order allows current and former presidents to block the release of materials from their presidential libraries for any reason, even because they are politically damaging. Records that might compromise national security are already protected from release by other laws and statutes, so this directive is clearly about political expediency.

President Bush’s order is contrary to the spirit and letter of the laws that previously governed presidential libraries. Although so far only a small number of records have been blocked from release, the potential for the abuse of power exists. Congress should overturn this executive order.

Presidents are not required to have presidential libraries. Since Watergate, presidential records are not owned by each president but by the nation; a president could simply hand over his or her records to the National Archives. But if a president chooses to have a library, it is up to Congress, current and former presidents, host universities and the public to ensure that each library operates in the public interest.

At their best, presidential libraries are vital institutions that help us learn from our history. But if we give in to the worst impulses of presidents and their supporters, these libraries risk becoming temples of political propaganda.

Read entire article at NYT

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