Off the Shelf: Presidential Libraries

Author: Susan Good

Documents within Presidential libraries, museums, and archives reveal not only stories of the past, but also share the rich history of American President’s personal, political, and public lives. In the United States today there are currently thirteen Presidential Libraries. Presidential Libraries and Museums preserve and provide public access to Presidential papers and records, as well as gifts of the President. Presidential Libraries and Museums are unique institutions administered by the National Archive and Records Administration (NARA) that bring together the records of the past and preserve them for the future generations.

The first Presidential library was established as a repository for the paper, records, gifts, and historical materials of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roosevelt donated the papers and gifts of his administration and created a foundation to raise the funds for construction of a building that would serve as a library, archive, and museum for the public.

Before the establishment of Presidential libraries, presidential papers and records of George Washington and twenty-two other presidents became part of the Library of Congress Manuscript Division. The papers of John Adams and six other presidents were donated by the families to state historical societies and special libraries. In 1955, Congress passed the Presidential Libraries Act (PLA) (PL84-373). The PLA established a system of privately constructed and federally maintained libraries. Later legislation passed in 1978 established presidential records that document the constitutional, statutory, and ceremonial duties of the President as the property of the United States Government. The Archivist of the United States assumes care of the records after the President’s final term [Presidential Records Act (PL95-591)]. In 1986, an amendment to the previous version of the Presidential Libraries Act was passed, (PL99-323) which set limits to the size of the Presidential library and museum, requiring private endowments equivalent to the size of the facility.

Presidential library collections are useful in researching primary source documents concerning U.S. domestic issues, foreign relations, and political affairs. The scope and depth of each collection provides researchers, educators, students, and the general public with a deeper glimpse into the lives and decisions of past presidents. Archival collections are arranged somewhat differently from library stacks. Audio and visual collections are a valuable resource for researchers and are arranged in an audio or photo archive. In addition to audio and visual collections, print archival collections of public papers, Executive Orders, and Speeches of the Presidents are part of Presidential Library collections. When conducting archival research there are different guidelines for use of materials. Because archival collections do not circulate and require specific care for preservation, research is usually done in person. A few tips for archival research include:

1. Decide what content you are looking for,
2. Determine where the content is held,
3. Research the Finding Aids online,
4. Contact library in advance.

Today, many Presidential libraries and museums have highlighted collections online and reference services are available via email, fax, and phone. The closest Presidential Library to Notre Dame is the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Other Presidential Libraries and Museums are located across the country in home states and towns of former Presidents. The newest Presidential Library has a temporary facility in Lewisville, Texas and is not yet open to the public. The groundbreaking for the permanent facility at Southern Methodist University will take place in November 2010, with plans to dedicate and open the facility to the public in 2013. At left is a list of Presidential Libraries across the country, and below are a few helpful links in case you want to visit one and do some archival research in your home state.

-Naomi Bishop


  • Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, June 30, 1941,
    Hyde Park, New York
  • Harry S. Truman Library, July 6, 1957,
    Independence, Missouri
  • Dwight D. Eisenhower Library, May, 1962
    Abilene, Kansas
  • Herbert Hoover Library, August 10, 1962
    West Branch, Iowa
  • Lyndon Baines Johnson Library, May, 1971
    Austin, Texas
  • John F. Kennedy Library, October 20, 1979
    Boston, Massachusetts
  • Gerald R. Ford Library, April, 1981
    Ann Arbor, Michigan
  • Jimmy Carter Library, October 1, 1986
    Atlanta, Georgia
  • Ronald Reagan Library, November, 1991
    Simi Valley, California
  • George Bush Library, November, 1997
    College Station, Texas
  • William J. Clinton Library, November, 2004
    Little Rock, Arkansas
  • Richard M. Nixon Library, July, 2007
    Yorba Linda, California
  • George W. Bush Library, Dallas, Texas