Once the Obama Presidential Center is constructed, it will have a children’s play garden, sledding hill, green spaces for picnics and outdoor gatherings, basketball courts and even a recording studio, officials have said.
But what the space won’t have is all of former President Barack Obama’s manuscripts, documents, letters and gifts he collected during his time in office. While the Presidential Center is about four years from opening, a conversation has begun about what the facility will mean to scholars and to local research universities without those items.
Traditionally, Presidential Libraries are places where historians, academics and college students travel to dig through paperwork and hold the first drafts of speeches, letters and legislation in their hands. But without those papers on site, some have begun to ask whether the Obama Center can even attract researchers to the University of Chicago, Chicago State University or the University of Illinois. What will it mean to have those documents online rather than in a physical form for inspection? And with digital technology constantly changing, how will the National Archives and Records Administration ensure the documents will be placed online in a timely manner and accessible over time?
“All archivists are waiting to see how this will work, because we are all struggling with how to make things available digitally,” said Peggy Glowacki, a manuscripts librarian at the Richard J. Daley Library at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “I think in this case it’s such a massive amount of material that it will be important to see how they are able to deliver it and make it easy to search.”
Currently, Obama’s papers are stored in a private facility — a handsome and sprawling, bright white brick building on a commercial strip on West Golf Road in suburban Hoffman Estates. Officials initially thought the papers would be kept in Chicago. But after they spent $300,000 to ship Obama’s documents to the Chicago region and about $223,000 a month to store and provide security for tens of millions of textual records, artifacts and audio visual materials here, they decided to ship them back to Washington once a decision is made on where to keep them permanently, a spokeswoman with the National Archives and Records Administration said.
The classified documents will be housed in an existing facility in Washington, D.C., the spokeswoman said. The non-classified papers will likely be placed in an existing NARA facility in a Washington suburb.
This much is clear: The archives won’t be taken to a newly constructed facility that would serve as a library.
Recently, in a lecture, Foundation CEO David Simas emphasized that the Obama Center will be unlike the actual presidential libraries across the country.
“This is going to be completely different,” he said. “What the president and first lady said … is they simply did not want a museum that served as a mausoleum, as a way to look back.”
The center could still prove itself valuable to historians and researchers, said James “Skip” Rutherford, the current dean of the William J. Clinton School of Public Service, who oversaw the construction and development of the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Ark.
“Here’s how it will be attractive: through the forums, workshops and programs they conduct,” he said. “They can host conferences with administration officials, discussions on how Obama approached health care, how he developed the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) executive order. That’s how the center will become a research institution.”
By relying on online archives, officials avoid having to construct the Obama facility to meet federal standards. They also avoid having to raise millions for an endowment and they won’t have to pay NARA to run the center.
“I don’t think it will have a major impact in terms of the success or popularity of the center,” Rutherford said. “The presence of paper records is less important now. Go back to Franklin D. Roosevelt and the treasure is in the documents. But now, the treasure is in the electronic records.”
For the University of Chicago, there is value just having the center as a neighbor, said Susan Sher, senior adviser to the university’s president.
“The university concluded that the university and the city as a whole would benefit greatly from bringing such a project to the South Side, considering the far-reaching opportunities for economic development, job creation, civic engagement and cultural enrichment, particularly for young people on the South Side and across the Chicago region,” she said in a written statement. “The Obama Presidential Center also offers opportunities for expanded programming and convening, which likely will be of interest for faculty and students from the University of Chicago and other universities, as well as young people throughout the region.”
Historically, there have been disparities in how the records and archives of African-American leaders and iconic figures have been preserved, in part due to a lack of dedicated resources.
Obama won’t suffer that fate, said Adrena Ifill, the managing partner of DoubleBack Global Group, a cultural heritage firm, based in Washington, D.C. Placing his records and documents online might even be a plus, she said.
“This move is in line with his legacy,” said Ifill. “Obama has been a game-changer from the beginning. If you see the presidential libraries of current living presidents, you’ll see how those centers have evolved. … Going digital is a natural progression of lessons learned from those entities.”
Plus, putting the records online will allow more than just scholars to view the scanned copies of Obama’s records and photographs, Ifill said. Playwrights, poets, teachers, civic leaders and hundreds of people who don’t have the resources to travel will get to look at the original source materials and find inspiration for new works.
“Obama and his team have put together something that is a game-changer in many ways,” she said. “He’s taking (his archives) from people only having access at a library where they have to stand in line to a person in another country where there is only one computer in a village. … That’s exciting.”
Lee White, President of the National Coalition for History, echoed Ifill’s sentiment. Because Obama’s tenure was during a digitized age, many of his speeches, remarks and writings are already online at NARA’s website.
“In some ways, this is easier for historians because they won’t have to travel to Chicago,” he said. “This will be a model going forward. Now not just academics will use the records: There will be high school students and teachers who want to pull Obama’s statement on immigration. Journalists who want to look.
“Putting the archives online will make the records universally accessible,” White said.
As an archivist, Glowacki at UIC can see the benefits and the challenges.
“There is something so important about young people, students, being exposed to primary sources,” she said. “We have become so used to having information fed to us second hand — and that’s a wonderful way to learn, when someone summarizes something for you.
“But there’s nothing like looking at the real thing, the actual record the president held in his hand.”
In his work as a presidential historian, Gil Troy has spent time looking at the letters and speeches of former Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton — and he has also researched using digital archives. The physical records tell a story and often lead to other important, yet less well-known, historical figures that helped craft the language or even influence decisions, he said.
“There’s always one particular person, a chief of staff, a liaison, that those collections really illuminate,” he said. “When you view the collection, you meet the people around the president, not just the president. That comes from being there, not just logging on.”
Troy relied mainly on digitized records when he was working on a book about Clinton. He said he was at the end of his research when he decided to travel to Little Rock and look through the physical archives. That process taught him new lessons, and being in the same community that shaped Clinton gave him a new perspective.
“There’s a power in the place,” he said. “It helps to get the atmospherics and environment that helped shape the president. You won’t get that online.”