(AOTUS) "Presidential Libraries: A Passport to History"

September 2023

Colleen Shogan
Archivist of the United States

 In my last column, I shared my intention to visit as many NARA locations as possible in my first months as Archivist. I’ve made inroads on that pledge, and I have plans through the end of the year to travel to new regions. One of the souvenirs I picked up along the way was a Presidential Libraries passport. Every Presidential library has a unique stamp, and I’m looking forward to filling the pages.

 As we use an actual passport to travel to new or familiar lands, we can think of the Presidential Libraries passport as an introduction to different periods of history. The libraries offer the casual visitor and the dedicated researcher an entry into the world that a President inhabited.

 When I did research for my own work, I came to appreciate the libraries’ rich holdings and dedicated staff. The research conducted by scholars—whether well known or not, established or starting out—has resulted in hundreds of books and articles that have increased our understanding of the person and the actions of the Presidents. 

 The period covered by NARA’s 15 Presidential Libraries—from the administrations of Herbert Hoover through Donald Trump—saw tremendous changes in the lives of Americans, the role of the president, and in our nation’s engagement abroad. Our Presidential Libraries are portals for learning about particular historical eras of American history, and the National Archives is proud of the role they play for those who are curious about our nation’s past.

 Helping visitors contextualize these changes and understand our history is the mission of the Presidential Library museums. The timeframe represented in a museum is not restricted to the years of an administration but stretches back to events that took place during a President’s childhood and forward to post-Presidential years. Some visitors have personal connections to that period; others have no firsthand memories of the time.

 Recognizing that our varied visitors have different learning styles, our museums use an assortment of ways to teach and inform: touch-screen interactives, audio and video recordings, and traditional labels. Together, these methods allow visitors to immerse themselves in the past.

 But one need not leave one’s home to take advantage of the libraries’ many offerings. There are abundant resources online, including digitized primary source material and artifacts, exhibits, and education resources. Our digital presence reaches audiences worldwide. 

 The Presidential Libraries’ resources for teachers and students are especially robust.

 Libraries host school groups for field trips and Scout activities, offer White House Situation Room role-playing simulations for teens, help students and teachers find resources for National History Day, develop teacher workshops, engage in distance learning, and create lesson plans.

 The Presidential Libraries promote learning history on a personal level. Exhibits and education programs allow visitors to encounter the Presidents in audio and video recordings as well as written documents. Special programs allow the public to hear directly from scholars and former White House staff. And even the locations themselves give visitors extra insight because each library is situated in a place with special meaning to the President.

 At the Presidential Libraries, we continually seek out ways to engage the public and forge connections to our history. In the past few years, the museum galleries at the Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower libraries have undergone extensive renovations. Right now, three more libraries—Herbert Hoover, Lyndon B. Johnson, and William J. Clinton—are in the early stages of planning for renovations to their own core exhibits.

 In addition, libraries are part of the National Archives’ civics education initiative, Civics for All of US, which engages audiences with primary sources that shed light on the successes, failures, debates, and challenges in the history of our democracy. 

 Because I’m a scholar of the Presidency, I strongly believe that the comprehensive study of our shared American past brings us together and strengthens our democratic ideals.

 I encourage you to visit the Presidential Libraries online, take advantage of their resources, and even get your own Presidential Libraries passport and start filling those pages.