by Brandon Wright Adler
I have broached this topic before; but, it seems more important than ever to again highlight that one of the most important functions of a librarian is helping to provide access to information. We cannot provide fair and comprehensive access to information without the preservation of information. That being said librarians are to be considered the guardians of information – especially law librarians. Recently, Politico broke the news that White House Records Management Analysts had been tasked with taping back together official Presidential records as President Trump has a bad habit of ripping up every piece of paper as soon as he’s finished with it.
White House aides, in an effort to make sure the President is not breaking the law and remains in compliance with the Presidential Records Act, collect the pieces of paper and have them sent to Records Management Analysts who are tasked with putting the puzzle back together and forwarding the taped up document to the National Archives who then files the document away. Let it be noted, these guardians (record management analysts) were very recently terminated. This is the perfect opportunity to look at whether Presidential Libraries are required institutions, after all, where better to house legally mandated Presidential records?
To start, what is the Presidential Records Act? The Presidential Records Act requires that the President of the United shall take all steps necessary to assure, “that the activities, deliberations, decisions, and policies that reflect the performance of the President’s constitutional, statutory, or other official or ceremonial duties are adequately documented and that such records are preserved and maintained as Presidential records… .”
In addition, the Presidential Libraries Act of 1955 was enacted two decades before the Presidential Records Act. Congress understood librarians and their libraries to be the guardians of information because the Presidential Libraries Act of 1955, as it was established, encouraged Presidents to donate their historical materials to the government in an effort to ensure preservation and access to Presidential documents. The Presidential Libraries Act of 1955 permits former presidents to build libraries, at no expense to the government, and then later transfer ownership of these buildings, as well as materials and memorabilia within, to the federal government. Interestingly, “the origins of the act… stem from the uncertain status of presidential records after a President left office. Until the passage of the act, it had been customary for Presidents to take these records with them as their personal property. The records were often passed from one generation to the next with little concern for their value to the history of the nation. Some presidential collections were well preserved by their heirs, but others were broken up and dispersed, or were partially destroyed.” Based on this very basic information: Are former President’s required to build a Presidential Library in their name and the turn it over to the federal government? No. They are only encouraged to so.
Most recently, former-President Barack Obama’s “Obama Presidential Center,” has decided to part with the tradition of the last several Presidents, and he has chosen to keep the library privately operated, although it will comply completely with the Presidential Records Act and the Freedom of Information Act. With the news that President Trump has a habit of ripping up Presidential papers, more questions about Presidential Libraries in the future arise, especially with Presidents that like to break from tradition (or the law).
If President Trump has a hard time following a law that requires him to preserve Presidential records, is he going to care about or even find necessary a facility to house said records? Or, will he, like Obama, want to maintain some modicum of control over his Presidential Library and therefore opt to keep his library privately operated? What can we say about privately operated Presidential libraries? Would such a library and museum be curated as the private owner wishes or will it be a foundation that holds history, scholarship, and fact in the highest regard? To answer these questions, this post could turn into a very large article studying the law and history of the Presidential Libraries Act (of 1955 and 1986) and the Presidential Records Act. Unfortunately, we will not discover that here—but hopefully I have left you with something to ponder.
Raymond Geselbracht and Timothy Walch, Prologue Magazine, National Archives, Summer 2005, https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2005/summer/preslib.html