How can you put the inauguration of a new president of the United States in a sensible perspective on a blog dealing with legal history? Is it the historian’s duty to say something about the near future or should I refrain at all cost from making predictions? One element in determining the role of a president in history are the presidential libraries and museums created in memory of deceased presidents or even by living former presidents. Starting with the library commemorating Herbert Hoover there are now fourteen institutions which aim at preserving important papers and objects and presenting the deeds and legacies of presidents. In this post I will search for information concerning facts and materials in connection with legal history. Last week I spotted the section on presidential libraries and museums at the website of the American National Archives, but it seemed wise not to hurry into action immediately.
The website of the National Archives hosts the Federal Register which preserves also Public Papers of Presidents. For five presidents you can start here looking at online sets with presidential papers, from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama. In 1957 the Office of the Federal Register started to publish series of publications of presidential papers in print. The National Archives guide you also to other institutions with presidential collections. Pride of place among them goes to the Library of Congress with 23 collections. A number of these collections has been digitized by its Manuscript Division. It is most useful to look at the guides to presidential papers provided by the National Archives. There is even a search interface to search with one action in all fourteen presidential libraries together. I urge you to look in particular to the history of the presidential libraries and the legislation enacted about them.
A short tour of presidential libraries
Interestingly there is even a second institution dealing with the papers of Herbert Hoover (1874-1964), the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and it is only logical to start here with the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum in West Branch, Iowa. The sheer variety of materials presented on the website gives a fair indication of the possible width of a presidential library and museum. For brevity’s sake I will focus here on Hoover’s period as a president (1928-1933), but it is instructive to see materials, too, even before the period his work as Secretary of Commerce in 1921. Hoover became known nationwide and internationally thanks to his efforts since 1914 for the Commission for Relief in Belgium. The library has eleven collections documenting aspects of his work as a president. Hoover’s campaign for the presidency is documented, too, at West Branch. By the way, its location in Iowa is a reminder of the geographical division of the presidential libraries. You can locate them on a clickable map at the website of the National Archives.
The Hoover Institution was founded at Stanford in 1919 by Hoover himself. By the way, he was among the first students of Stanford University when it opened in 1891. It holds collections for his life and work before 1921 and after the end of his presidency, and thus it figures here only briefly, however interesting its activities and collections are. In a way it embodies a part of Hoover’s vision and promotes it for this century.
It is not entirely surprising that Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s decision in 1938 to create space for a library documenting his presidency and to donate his presidential papers to the federal government forms the start of the modern presidential collections. The FDR Presidential Library and Museum is located in Hyde Park, NY. A fair part of the collections in this library has been digitized. Using the Franklin search engine you can look at your screen not only at documents created by Roosevelt himself, but also at materials concerning Eleanor Roosevelt and Henry Morgenthau Jr, and there are preset selections on a number of themes. The presence of many photographs in these digital collections reminds you of the impact of the representation of power, law and government. Think only of presidents signing a law… The museum of this institution, as any museum, creates a space set free to focus attention on a particular theme or on particular objects. In this case it fosters an image of an era. They often succeed more readily in evoking essential characteristics of a period than documents can do. However, viewing a particular record can bring you a sense of immediate contact with the past.
Presidents of this century come into view with the George W. Bush Library and Museum in Dallas, TX. It is combined with the Bush Center. At this moment the Barack Obama Presidential Library is only a website preluding to its opening in Chicago within a few years. Certainly one of the most salient features of Bush’s library is the Situation Room. Not just for school children and researchers this space fires the imagination. We all have seen sometimes movies with scenes set in a presidential room during national and international crises, but the real one is not the kind of medium size conference room. The Secure Video Transmission Site has been recreated at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Simi Valley, CA. The Bush Library offers you also a digital library, a guide to the events of 9/11 and a good overview of other relevant resources.
This list of the George W. Bush Library ends with other resources ends with a most vital piece of legislation for the theme of this post, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA; 5 U.S.C. 552). Presidential libraries and museums are subject to a number of laws and regulations. Four of them deal with presidential transitions. The Office of Presidential Libraries administers the network of these libraries and takes also action to create presidential projects for presidents leaving office.
It is tempting to linger longer at the websites of one or more presidential libraries instead of trying to give here a more balanced view. I suppose that when you look a bit longer at their websites you will find materials which are more closely connected with legal history. My choice should give you an idea of the holdings of such institutions and their context. As is my common practice I have put in web links at many turns to lead you to online resources to help you in your research. Once upon a time the virtual world was indeed another world, but after 25 years the Internet is just one of the online media in our current world. The links are for your use, and you should not feel troubled to leave my blog and visit them!
As for any presidency it will be most interesting to follow the new president’s actions. His actions should be set within in the framework of the Constitution of the United States, checked by the legislative powers of the Congress and the power of the Supreme Court. The Library of Congress has created a fine overview of presidential inaugurations. Its Law Library should be your port of call to find information about both current American and foreign legislation. In the world’s largest library you can find an incredible mass of information about law and justice in other countries, too. The law librarians’ blog, In Custodia Legis [In the Custody of the Law] is one of the services alerting you to many aspects of their collections and ongoing work to retrieve information for anyone’s use. There is no doubt that in due time we will distinguish the legacy of any president from his other actions. However, it is a true concern where the promises made during the campaign will lead the United States of America and the world at large. As for predicting the future as a historian the old wisdom that politics will touch you sooner or later still holds true, as will visions of law and justice.