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Presidential libraries showcase artifacts, personalities and controversies

By Michael Schuman

For the Deseret News

Published: Saturday, Feb. 15 2014 1:00 p.m. MST

This reproduction of the Lincoln Sitting Room, Richard Nixon's favorite room in the White House, can be seen at the Richard Nixon Presidential Museum.

Michael Schuman

Presidential libraries are here to inform us that we don’t know as much about history as we think we do.

It's in places such as these we witness the heroism of young Herbert Hoover who, before his name became forever attached to the Great Depression, was known as the Great Humanitarian for feeding hundreds of thousands of starving Europeans in the wake of World War I. The realities have a way of squashing myths and expanding the perception of these former heads of state.

Unlike traditional libraries, these are research facilities and museums, mainly for official presidential papers, photography and state gifts. The museum portions beckon travelers. Their basic purpose is to tell each president’s life story, from childhood to retirement, through posted commentary and artifacts.

There are currently 13 presidential libraries/museums administered by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and a few that are privately or state-run, such as those for Abraham Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson.

The first U.S. presidential library and museum was the brainchild of Franklin Roosevelt. Before FDR, the fate of every president’s official papers had been at the mercy of the president or his heirs. Following FDR, presidents Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower built presidential libraries. Then in 1962, Hoover built one, even though he preceded Roosevelt in office. Since then, with few exceptions, they have been built in chronological order.

To take advantage of the latest technology and newest historical perspectives, most have been redesigned several times since opening. Ronald Reagan’s was completely redesigned in 2011, Lyndon Johnson’s in 2012 and Franklin Roosevelt’s in 2013.

Location is key

At first, presidents built libraries and museums near the places they lived. Roosevelt's in Hyde Park, N.Y.; Truman's in Independence, Mo.; Eisenhower's in Abilene, Kan.; and Hoover's in West Branch, Iowa, were constructed near each president's adult or boyhood home. Years later, Nixon built his next to his childhood home in Yorba Linda, Calif.

Lyndon Johnson started a trend of building presidential libraries on or adjacent to college campuses when his was built at University of Texas in Austin. John F. Kennedy (University of Massachusetts at Boston), George Bush the elder (Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas) and Bush the younger (Southern Methodist University in Dallas) all have libraries on campuses.

Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton had theirs built in venues meant to revitalize urban areas in Atlanta and Little Rock, Ark., respectively. Gerald Ford’s is the only complex split between two cities — the Ford Library is on the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor and the Ford Museum is in his longtime home, Grand Rapids, Mich.

Famous rooms and artifacts

Most presidential museums are highlighted by a re-creation of a famous room. Odds are that if you enter one, you’ll encounter a reproduction of the Oval Office. Clinton’s, Carter’s, Reagan’s, Johnson’s, Ford’s, Truman’s and both Bushes’ all have one. At George W. Bush’s, visitors can sit in a replica of his chair. Kennedy’s presidential desk sits alone, set up before cameras as if a press conference is about to start. According to staffers at the FDR museum, the desk there is the only original in a presidential museum.

The elder Bush also went for variety. His museum presents his office at Camp David as well as the White House Situation Room. Clinton’s has a full-size reproduction of the White House Cabinet Room. Nixon’s has replicas of the East Room and the Lincoln Sitting Room, his favorite place in the White House. FDR’s is home to a singular chamber, the secret White House Map Room, where the president kept tabs on the progress of key battles.