Presidential libraries and museums are uniquely American institutions. In excess of 1.5 million visitors tour them annually. It's interesting to learn how these buildings and collections that pay homage to a particular person and era of American history came to be.

Most presidential libraries and museums are privately planned, funded, and constructed before being turned over to the federal government. Today, the National Archives and Records Administration's (NARA) Office of Presidential Libraries is responsible for administering these repositories of presidential history (all but the Hayes library and the Nixon library, which are privately operated). Indeed, there never used to be a set tradition that preserved a president's papers and artifacts. Some of the material from earlier chief executives was destroyed, damaged, lost, or otherwise dispersed by a president's heirs. Material prior to Herbert Hoover's administration is scattered through historical societies, private collections, and in part within the Library of Congress. The Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center was the first institution of its kind, and Franklin D. Roosevelt used that model in creating his own library, turning material over in 1939 for that work to begin.

Few might realize that President Franklin Roosevelt introduced the system of archiving that most former presidents follow today, with the building eventually deeded over and maintained by the federal government. Using this model, Congress passed the Presidential Libraries Act in 1955, whereby the National Archives has the authority to accept papers, artifacts, land, and buildings to establish a presidential library. Following the Watergate controversy, in which the Nixon administration guarded historical materials, Congress took possession of certain Nixon records with the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act of 1974. The Presidential Records Act of 1978 established that presidential records that document the constitutional, statutory, and ceremonial duties of the president are government property. Further, the Presidential Libraries Act of 1986 made significant changes to these libraries, requiring private endowments linked to the size of the facility in order to offset a portion of the maintenance costs.

This act also mandated that the National Archives preserve, process, and prepare presidential papers and material for public exploration at the offices in College Park, Maryland (just outside Washington, D.C.). When a president leaves office and until a library is built and transferred to the government, the NARA establishes a presidential project to begin collections.

Today, there are ten presidential libraries, the Nixon Presidential Materials Staff (separate from his private library), and the project established for President Bill Clinton until his library is constructed.

The following describes presidential libraries in brief detail and gives the contact information you would need to visit and explore a bit of American history on your own. For more detail, read Presidential Libraries and Museums: An Illustrated Guide, by Pat Hyland (Congressional Quarterly, 1995).

Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center

Opened May 30, 1916, in Fremont, Ohio, the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center was founded by President Hayes's son Webb C. Hayes and the Ohio Historical Society. This tribute was the first of its kind. In 1982, it was expanded and given its present name. The museum and library are housed in a two-story building of classical proportions. President and Mrs. Hayes's thirty-three-room mansion was opened to the public in 1966. The meeting center was once a nineteenth-century Victorian building. As you'll find at many other libraries and museums, the former president and his beloved wife are also buried on the grounds. The library takes you through Hayes's career prior to the presidency, his administration and family life, and his devotion to ending Reconstruction and preserving nationalism. Other exhibits feature military equipment, including weapons General Hayes used during the Civil War. You can reach the Hayes Presidential Center by calling (419) 332-2081. It's located at Spiegel Grove, 1337 Hayes Avenue, Fremont, Ohio 43420.

Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum

Presidential libraries aren't necessarily constructed and dedicated in the same order as the presidential roster. That was certainly the case with this library, as those for Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower were already established by the time this library was dedicated on August 10, 1962. The exhibits tell how President Harry Truman called upon Hoover to head two post–World War II global relief missions that kept people from starving, and how this work was similar to Hoover's efforts following World War I. At the dedication ceremony, Hoover explained why his library is located in West Branch: because, although he took few, if any, material assets from the town, what he did carry with him he considered far more precious — religious faith, warm childhood recollections, and the family disciplines of hard work. Galleries explore his White House years and his retirement to New York's elegant Waldorf Towers, where he wrote books and articles and supported many other causes. Other aspects to the complex include the birthplace cottage, the blacksmith shop, the Friends meetinghouse, a one-story schoolhouse, and the gravesites of Herbert and Lou Henry Hoover. For more information, call the library at (319) 643-5301. The National Park Service Visitor Center is on Parkside Drive and Main Street, not far from Interstate 80, in West Branch, Iowa.

The Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum

Because FDR was elected to an unprecedented four terms, this library has a lot to offer, from his boyhood memories to a view of the Oval Office desk as it must have been during his twelve years as president. Of course, much of Roosevelt's New Deal is explored in exhibits covering his now-famous first 100 days in office, characterized by more than a dozen actions that set the country on a recovery path. Wartime efforts for achieving peace are chronicled, as well as the more personal sides to Roosevelt, including fireside chats and his dog Fala. In the Eleanor Roosevelt Gallery, added to the original library in 1972, you'll learn about her dedication to FDR's political career after his bout with polio, her tough stands on issues, and her service as a United Nations delegate. Just behind the library and museum is the Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site, the lifelong home of the thirty-second president. The Roosevelt library is approximately two hours from New York City, located at 4079 Albany Post Road, Hyde Park, New York 12538. Call (845) 486-7770 for more information.

The Truman Presidential Museum and Library

When the town of Independence, where Truman lived before and after his presidency, offered to donate land for his library, work began on the site in 1955. Local architect Alonzo H. Gentry, with the assistance of Edward Neild, completed the building in two years. The style is somewhat modern, yet the square entrance columns give it a classic Egyptian look. There are video presentations, and on display are the table and chair the president used to sign the Truman Doctrine, and the Steinway piano he often played. Photographs are prominent, including the famously inaccurate headline “Dewey Defeats Truman.” The Truman Library is approximately ten miles east of downtown Kansas City on U.S. Highway 24 and Delaware, Independence, Missouri 64050. Call (800) 833 1225 or (816) 268-8200 for prerecorded information.

The Eisenhower Center

If you ever wondered about the origins of Eisenhower's nickname “Ike,” you'll find the answer here in a complex of five buildings. Dedicated May 1, 1962, the center includes a library, visitor center, the family home (on its original site), a museum, and the place of meditation (the final resting place for Dwight, Mamie, and Doud Eisenhower). You can't miss the eleven-foot statue of Eisenhower, The Soldier, which was a gift from Harry Darby, a former U.S. senator representing Kansas. It rests on a five-sided pedestal of Georgia granite. One of the exhibits includes the D-day planning table, a mahogany Sheraton pedestal table with twelve Chippendale chairs, from which General Eisenhower gave orders to launch the massive Allied invasion of Normandy that brought freedom to Europe and peace to the United States as well. To reach the Eisenhower Center, call (877) 746-4453 or (785) 263 6700. It's located two miles south of the Abilene exit off Interstate 70 on Kansas Highway 15 (also called Buckeye Avenue).

The John F. Kennedy Library and Museum

Located at Columbia Point with a beautiful view toward Boston Harbor, made complete by his sloop Victura cradled on the lawn outside, this museum was designed by architect I. M. Pei and was dedicated on October 20, 1979. It underwent a redesign in 1993. Begin your tour with a film in which JFK himself narrates the story of his early life, then step back in time as the library re-creates the Kennedy presidency. The 1960 campaign leads up to the Kennedy-Nixon debates, where you'll find a reproduction of the Chicago television studio where they actually took place. Election results were so close that Kennedy retired for the night, as many Americans did, not knowing the outcome. He was the first Catholic president, and the youngest man ever elected to the job. His inaugural address won't disappoint you, no matter how many times you've heard it.

A symbolic portal welcomes you to the White House corridor, where you'll find presidential gifts from world leaders. Of course, you can learn more about the space program, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Peace Corps, and you'll see the Oval Office as it appeared in June 1963 with JFK's desk, rocking chair, and globe. After such splendor, pass through a dark corridor where Walter Cronkite tells a stunned nation, through his own visible emotion, that the thirty-fifth president is now dead.

When the museum received many historical artifacts from the estate of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, it expanded in 1997 with a stronger presence by the former first lady. Each year, the Kennedy Library Foundation presents the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award to an individual who exemplifies political courage as Kennedy defined it in his Pulitzer Prize–winning book of the same title. The Kennedy Library is adjacent to the University of Massachusetts/Boston Harbor Campus. For more information, call (866) 535-1960. The John F. Kennedy National Historic Site (JFK's Brookline birthplace) is administered by the National Park Service. Call (617) 566-7937.

The Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum

Dedicated May 22, 1971, this was the first presidential library to be placed on a college campus. This one sits at the University of Texas at Austin. In conjunction with the library is a graduate school of public affairs. The eight-story structure overlooks the campus. When you enter the modern building, notice the travertine marble throughout the structure. In the Orientation Theater, see the documentary film on LBJ's life and career. Don't miss the bronze busts of LBJ and Lady Bird Johnson, works designed by sculptor Robert Berks. There are letters to Mrs. Johnson from White House residents, from Jackie Kennedy to Bill Clinton. One exhibit chronicles the events surrounding Kennedy's assassination, from the fateful motorcade in Dallas to Johnson taking the oath of office aboard Air Force One, and his arrival at Andrews Air Force Base, where he addressed a shaken nation. Reflecting happier times, you'll see the family album with photographs of Lynda and Luci and their families. You'll learn about LBJ's vision for a Great Society, and even a little about the culture of the 1960s. The Johnson Library is located at 2313 Red River Street, Austin, Texas 78705. For more information call (512) 721-0200.

The Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace

Dedicated on July 19, 1990, in Yorba Linda, California, this is the only one of the presidential libraries to be totally operated with private funds. The complex spans nine acres, on which Nixon's parents worked when it was a citrus grove. Designed by Langdon Wilson Architecture and Planning in Newport Beach, California, the library has an atmosphere that is traditional rather than monumental. A fountain greets you out front. Visitors are reminded of Nixon's Quaker heritage by the high-peaked ceiling reminiscent of Quaker meeting halls. Exhibits chronicle Nixon's early life, his marriage to Pat, and the young Nixon family with their daughters. Since Nixon became vice president when television was taking hold, you can see five minutes of his black-and-white televised address to the nation on September 23, 1952, with his famous rebuttal to charges that he kept a secret slush fund while a senator. It became known as “the Checkers speech.” The years from his 1960 presidential race to resuming his law practice upon that election's loss and then to his comeback in the 1968 campaign are all outlined. The presidential focus features foreign affairs, in which the president was particularly skilled, including a photo of this first American president to travel to Communist China. Discover Pat Nixon's life and travels as first lady as well as the dresses from their daughters' weddings. A long, darkened corridor titled “Watergate: The Final Campaign” ends with the former president waving goodbye on August 9, 1974. Read a transcript or listen to the recorded conversation Nixon had with his chief of staff Bob Haldeman — a conversation known as “the smoking gun.” Nixon's post-presidential work is also recounted. Exiting, you enter the formal garden surrounding the reflecting pool. From here it's a short walk to Nixon's birthplace (a modest farmhouse), and along the path you'll discover the simply marked burial site of Richard and Pat Nixon. The address of the Nixon Library is 18001 Yorba Linda Boulevard, Yorba Linda, California 92886. Call (714) 993-5075 for more information.

The Gerald R. Ford Library

This president's archives are located on the campus of his alma mater, the University of Michigan, and Ford's museum sits within his old congressional district that he served for twenty-five years. The complex is built along the west bank of the Grand River. It's a sleek architectural design by Marvin De Winter Associates, made even more impressive by the fountain and reflecting pool. Learn about Ford's life of public service. What surprises the average visitor is the fact that Gerald Ford wasn't born with that name, but the name of Leslie L. King Jr. After his mother fled an abusive marriage, taking her son with her, she met and married Gerald R. Ford, and at the age of twenty-two, Leslie King Jr., changed his name to Gerald R. Ford Jr., in honor of the father who raised him. You'll see a copy of the Twenty-fifth Amendment to the Constitution, which states that whenever there is a vacancy in the office of vice president, the president shall nominate a vice president who shall take office upon confirmation by both houses of Congress. Tally sheets document Ford's confirmation, and another exhibit profiles the man who became Ford's vice president — Nelson Rockefeller. Letters regarding Ford's pardon to President Nixon are displayed, and the campaign against the relatively unknown Jimmy Carter shows up as well. You can find the Ford Library at 1000 Beal Avenue, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48109. For more information call (734) 205-0555.

The Carter Presidential Center

In their book Everything to Gain, the Carters describe finding the perfect site for their library in the heart of Atlanta, with an impressive view of the Atlanta skyline. In architectural terms, it's understated, with two small lakes separating the high-traffic library and the remaining buildings. In the exhibit honoring the century's presidents, the description above Jimmy Carter's name reads “peacemaker/protector of human rights.” Historic photos such as the one of Carter shaking hands with Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat and Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel are proud reminders of his strides in foreign relations. An interactive town meeting area is set up where, in recordings, Carter answers typical questions. Rosalynn Carter is revealed more as the president's partner, showing her as a mental health advocate with an impressive record. The Carter Center is about fifteen miles from Atlanta's Hartsfield International Airport and only three miles from downtown Atlanta, located at One Copenhill Avenue, Atlanta, Georgia 30307. You can call (800) 550-3560 or (404) 420-5100 for more information.

The Ronald Reagan Library

The president's library was dedicated November 4, 1991, in Simi Valley, California. Presidents Ford, Nixon, Bush, Reagan, and Carter stood in a replica of the Oval Office to have their photo taken during the dedication of Ronald Reagan's library, which is set in the rugged Western landscape that both Ronald and Nancy Reagan loved. It's a rambling Spanish-mission-style building designed by the architectural firm of Stubbins Associates using redwood and adobe tile. View a documentary film on Reagan's life leading up to his job as commander in chief. Those early years include his Hollywood Wall, as the former president made fifty-three films in his prior career. In this part of the museum, you'll find the only picture of Reagan's first wife, actress Jane Wyman. His movie career interrupted by World War II, Reagan also served as the public relations speaker for General Electric Company, largely in the 1950s. His political life includes serving as president of the Screen Actors Guild, supporting Barry Goldwater's unsuccessful presidential bid in 1964, and then making it to the governor's mansion in California. In the section covering Reagan as president, exhibits range from prosperity to peace and freedom, the end of the Cold War, and life in the White House. In the first lady's gallery, the spotlight shines on his wife, with the video Nancy Reagan: A Personal Portrait. As you return to the lobby, notice the authentic section of the Berlin Wall with a marker bearing Reagan's words “to every person trapped in tyranny … our message must be: Your struggle is our struggle, your dream is our dream, and someday you, too, will be free.” The library is located at 40 Presidential Drive, Simi Valley, California 93065. Call (800) 410-8454 for more information.

The George Bush Presidential Library and Museum

This 69,000-square-foot complex, made of limestone and granite and dedicated on November 6, 1997, is located on a ninety-acre site on the West Campus of Texas A&M University. It sits on a plaza adjoining the Presidential Conference Center and the Texas A&M Academic Center. It was the tenth presidential library operated by the National Archives, and when it opened, Presidents Ford, Carter, Bush, and Clinton were together along with the first ladies (including Nancy Reagan, who represented her husband). Inside, visitors will find a World War II Avenger Bomber along with other memorabilia pertaining to Bush's service during the war. There are replicas of the office the former president used at Camp David and in Air Force One. The museum collection also contains approximately 60,000 historical objects, ranging from gifts from heads of state or ordinary Americans to personally used items; thousands of hours of audio recordings and videotape; and approximately 1 million photographs. One unique feature of this library is the classroom to be used by student groups as a computer learning lab or as a traditional classroom — the first of its kind in the presidential library network. Also on the university campus is the Bush School of Government and Public Service. For more information, call (979) 691-4000. The library is located at 1000 George Bush Drive West, College Station, Texas 77845.

The William J. Clinton Presidential Center

The William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum is located in Clinton's home state of Arkansas on the banks of the Arkansas River, surrounded by parkland. Former President Clinton, who reportedly has visited seven of the ten presidential libraries, said, “I hope that it will not only allow people to see these remarkable eight years, but will help to empower people and give them the confidence that they can build America's greatest days in the new century.” This $100 million endeavor was the largest construction in Little Rock history, and the archival and museum holdings are the largest within the presidential system. The museum includes replicas of the Oval Office and the Cabinet Room, along with approximately 76.8 million pages of paper documents, 1.85 million photographs, and more than 75,000 museum artifacts. The Clinton library is located at 1200 President Clinton Avenue, Little Rock, Arkansas 72201. For more information, call (501) 374-4242 or send an email to clinton.library@nara.gov.

  1. Home
  2. American History
  3. Presidential Libraries
Visit other About.com sites: