Celebrate America and learn a little about our history along the way
Summer vacation is for visiting family and friends at the beach or in the great outdoors. Travelers also enjoy visiting cultural or historical sites which celebrate America’s history. You may already have one or more such patriotic tourist attractions in your summer itinerary — such as Independence Mall and the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, the Alamo in San Antonio, or Mount Rushmore in South Dakota — but not everyone thinks of adding one of the Presidential Libraries to their list. Here at EveryLibrary, we think you should. The Presidential Library system is one of our greatest national cultural resources and a wonderful way to explore our history through the lens of America’s highest elected office.
The first Presidential Library was created in 1939 when President Franklin Roosevelt donated his personal and Presidential papers to the Federal Government and dedicated a portion of his residence in Hyde Park, New York to house his library and archives. Before Roosevelt, Presidential papers were often dispersed to the President’s heirs, other libraries, private collections or the Library of Congress, with many of these valuable historical documents being forgotten, lost or destroyed. By entrusting the National Archives with his papers, Roosevelt set a precedent that was followed by his successors (as well as his predecessor Herbert Hoover). It was codified into law by the Presidential Libraries Act of 1955, where Congress authorized the establishment of a system of libraries built with private funds but maintained by Federal money.
Today there are 13 Presidential Libraries administered by NARA located throughout the country. Each library is not just an archives but a museum and historical interpretive center, bringing the life and times of each President to life through documents, objects, media as well as cultural, educational and artistic programming. For example, the Richard Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California offers a free Sunday concert series. The 14th and most recent Presidential Library, currently under construction, will embrace the digital era: although the Obama Presidential Center will be built in Jackson Park on Chicago’s South Side, the Barack Obama Library will be the first fully digital collection, eventually making the Presidential records of the Obama administration available online to all.
Although not under the auspices of the National Archives, there are libraries and museums dedicated to the study of many other of the Presidents who served before Hoover and Roosevelt. The Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington is located in Mount Vernon, Virginia, while John Adams’ legacy is preserved at the Stone Library at Adams National Historical Park in Quincy, Massachusetts. Even though President Thomas Jefferson’s personal library was famously sold to Congress in 1815 in an effort to rebuild the Library of Congress’ collections after British forces burned the library along with the Capitol building during the War of 1812, you can view other copies of these titles as they appeared on the shelves of his Monticello home at the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies.
In addition to the research centers available to scholars and other students of history, every Presidential Library has its own collection of permanent and special exhibitions. At the JFK Library in Boston, Massachusetts you will find exhibits dedicated to President Kennedy’s early life growing up as a boy in Hyannis Port, his wartime service aboard a PT Boat during World War II, television footage from the 1960 Presidential Election; also to be found are exhibits featuring First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and brother and Attorney General Robert Kennedy. In addition to these personal historical displays, visitors can learn about the Peace Corps, the U.S. Space Program and admire a collection of gifts to President Kennedy from various heads of state.
There are also special exhibits available at the Presidential Libraries. Right now at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library in Austin, Texas you can explore the culture and politics of the 1960’s through soul music at Motown: The Sound of Young America, a first-time retrospective collaboration with the GRAMMY Museum including rare artifacts and instruments as well as an interactive musical experience. Meanwhile at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, California you can explore the imagination of Renaissance artist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci in an exhibition which includes rare folios, artistic reproductions and a collection of reconstructions of da Vinci’s famous machines, including life-sized versions of his mechanical lion, flying bicycle and other inventions which appeared in his sketchbooks.
Presidential Libraries are intentionally non-partisan in nature, offering Americans and visitors from other nations an opportunity to consider the legacy of each President independent of political bias. In these politically-charged times, the Presidential Library System presents a welcoming and inclusive vision of our shared heritage and a reminder of the importance of libraries to the preservation of our nation’s historical and cultural legacy. So if your holiday driving plans this summer take you in the direction of one of our Presidential Libraries, consider making a stop at one of these uniquely American institutions. Safe travels and happy motoring!