History of Presidential Libraries

February 14, 2022

Not Your Average Library

The history behind America's presidential libraries and how it connects to a modern investigation of a former commander-in-chief.

The Origin Story

  • 1939: Pres. Roosevelt donated personal & presidential papers to the govt., as well as a portion of his estate, for what eventually became the first U.S. presidential library.
  • 1955 Pres. Libraries Act: Established a system of libraries that are privately funded for building but federally maintained thereafter. This act encouraged, not required, presidents to donate their records.
  • 1978 Pres. Records Act: Formally established public ownership of presidential (& VP) records; this was partly in response to the Watergate investigation.

“The dedication of a library is in itself an act of faith. To bring together the records of the past and to house them in buildings where they will be preserved for the use of men and women in the future, a Nation must believe in three things. It must believe in the past. It must believe in the future. It must, above all, believe in the capacity of its own people so to learn from the past that they can gain in judgment in creating their own future.”

Pres. Roosevelt at his official library dedication in 1941 in Hyde Park, NY. The president chooses the location, which has often been a hometown or near a university.

“This institution will be a time capsule of American growth & greatness covering more than a single presidency, honoring more than a single president.”

Pres. Reagan at his library dedication in 1991 in Simi Valley, CA. Prior to presidential libraries, presidents considered their papers as their own private property & would often remove them after their tenure, a precedent set by Pres. Washington upon leaving office. The Presidential Records Act went into effect during the Reagan administration and “changed the legal ownership of the official records of the President from private to public.”

Current Controversy:

  • January 2022: The National Archives retrieves 15 boxes of material from former Pres. Trump’s estate.
  • February: House Democrats begin a *congressional* investigation about whether Pres. Trump violated the Presidential Records Act.
  • August: FBI raids Pres. Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate; FBI and Dept. of Justice have not yet confirmed the reason. Reports: This raid pertains to an investigation into whether Pres. Trump mishandled presidential (public) records and classified material.

Traditionally, all presidential documents are given to the National Archives & are eventually housed in the president’s library. A question remains about how the Presidential Records Act has been “enforced” in prior years and what sort of punishment could be faced for violating the law, which some describe as a “guideline.”

There are 13 presidential libraries open to the public. Pres. Obama’s library is currently under construction in Chicago; plans for Pres. Trump’s library have not yet been confirmed.

For photos of the Presidential Libraries: Architectural Digest

Letter to Congress from National Archive (February 2022)

by Jenna Lee,