Historians Concerned About Digital Plans for Obama Library

Historians Concerned About Digital Plans for Obama Library

The Obama Presidential Center is shaping up to be many things, but one thing it will not be is a traditional presidential library, the New York Times reports.

Set to be built in a public park on the South Side of Chicago, the $500 million, nineteen-acre, four-building "working center for citizenship" will include a 235-foot-high "museum tower," a two-story event space, an athletic center, a recording studio, and other amenities, but it will not have a research library or any of the former president's official presidential records. Instead, the Obama Foundation is planning to pay to digitize the roughly thirty million pages of unclassified paper records from the administration and make them available online, with the entire complex to be run by the foundation rather than the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), the federal agency that administers the libraries and museums for all presidents going back to Herbert Hoover.

The plan has presidential scholars and historians concerned about future scholarship on the nation's forty-fourth president and his administration as well as implications for the presidential library system itself. Without a dedicated repository, they argue, materials and papers donated by family members, cabinet members, and aides — as well as pre-presidential and personal papers — could end up scattered among multiple locations, or even remain uncollected. And without help from specialized archivists, the promised digital democratization of the administration's papers could just as easily turn into a hard-to-navigate data dump.

How and why the foundation decided to opt out of the current system remains unclear, but the idea is in keeping with the increasingly digital nature of the presidential "paper" trail, which, along with millions of pieces of paper, includes hundreds of millions of emails as well as Facebook and Instagram posts, tweets, and other digital records. Robbin Cohen, executive director of the Obama Foundation, told the Times that "financial requirements" — including a new law requiring that the foundation pay NARA 60 percent of the construction costs of its federally run portions as an endowment to cover future maintenance — were a factor; for previous presidential libraries, the figure was only 20 percent. But the logic of digitization also played a role; under National Archives policy, researchers are not given access to paper originals when electronic versions are available.

Ultimately, some in the presidential library system say, the move to a digital model is a necessary step into the future. And in response to an article critical of the foundation's decision, Meredith R. Evans, director of the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum in Atlanta, chimed in: "Let's give the digital a try, before giving in to dismay."

Jennifer Schuessler. "The Obama Presidential Library That Isn't." New York Times 02/20/2019.