Thursday, December 07, 2006

Presidential Libraries and Their Role in the Writing of History

The newest issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education has an article titled Presidential Libraries and Their Role in the Writing of History. If you are not a Chronicle subscriber, the link will not work as a subscription is required to view this article online. Benjamin Hufbauer gives his views on presidential libraries.

In short, he is no fan of them. He questions the ability of president's to be able to control and design their own libraries. He wrote, "The biggest problem is that they get to control how the museums describe their lives and the events in their presidency. The archives are very important, of course, and many books are written from them. But the museum presents a kind of propaganda to the public."

He also describes the building of presidential libraries as egotistical. He wrote, "My impression is that these presidents are obsessed with these things. Their egos are far beyond what a normal human being can imagine. ... They feel this is the way to put in marble and concrete their greatness. Most of them are thinking of it all the time."

So, how valuable are presidential libraries? As a librarian I like the idea. As a fan of presidential history, I like them as well. Is it a problem if the libraries represent the desires of the presidents? Does a conflict of interest exist that makes the libraries less useful than they could be? Since presidents can not control what will be written in the history books, is it OK for them to control what is in their own presidential library? These are some good questions and I do not have the answers.


Jennie W said...

This is a really interesting train of thought. My thought is that ALL museums (and special libraries) are to some extent "biased." Humans create them and humans make choices. Added to this most musuems (and special libraries) are run through donations. Donors can force choices as well. Do you not take that million dollars because it means you'll watch your shelf list a little more closely?

Most academic libraries even face this to a certain extent. The administration says you'll atke that donation even though you didn't want to....and what can you do? I have some specific collections in mind that I'll keep to myself! But we all know it happens.

I don't think it is fair to relegate presidential libraries to the "rubish" bin because of their bias. They are just more honest about it! Maybe they are a little more biased than others, but in the end, I think the good outweighs the bad.

Ed Darrell said...

Libraries good, libraries with propaganda agendas are oxymoronish chimeras, and probably don't work so well.

Have y'all been following the contretemps about the proposal to put a library for President Wilson in Virginia? Congress appears to have let the proposal die, at least for now. And in Dallas, Southern Methodist University is caught up in a grand controversy over the university's efforts to get the George W. Bush library -- shady real estate dealings, political end runs around city zoning, academics being left out of planning, etc.

On the other hand, I dearly love the F. D. Roosevelt stuff at Hyde Park, and the Johnson Library in Austin has been useful to me on several occasions, especially with all the public domain photos they put up on the web, and with their being in Austin while I'm in Texas, too. Especially in the Johnson case, I don't think it's much a case of controlling history so much as making it available to scholars. I cannot imagine such a wealth of stuff being more easily available at the National Archives in D.C.

A presidential library is a good idea, I think, if it sticks to the notion for what a library ought to be, if it expands the availability of knowledge rationally.