The Politics of a Presidential Archive

President Obama is breaking from tradition. Unlike his predecessors, he is forgoing a traditional library and museum; a process used by past presidents to process their historical records and to “control their own legacies.”* Instead, the Obama Foundation is funding the digital processing, through NARA, of some of the administration’s unclassified materials. The rest of Obama’s records will be stored in other NARA facilities.

In lieu of a traditional library and museum space, the Obama Foundation is planning the Obama Presidential Center, a multi-use, publically accessible, community space located in Jackson Park on the South Side of Chicago. The center will include classrooms, meeting spaces, a branch of the Chicago Public Library, a performance space, and playgrounds; all designed for public use. The function of the building is path-breaking, as is the choice of location.

While it is common for a presidential library to be located in a place significant to that president, those places tend to be prestigious in their own right or remote in location. The South Side of Chicago is a highly stigmatized neighborhood, but one incredibly significant to urban history, African American history, and the Obama’s family history.

One of the goals of locating the center in Jackson Park on the South Side of Chicago is to increase community engagement and open up new job and education opportunities for community members. The center is expected to have 700,000 annual visitors who would frequent neighborhood businesses and revitalize the neighborhood, without gentrifying it. The Obama Foundation wants to strip away barriers of accessibility, improve the community, and redefine what a presidential library can be.

Obama Mock Up
A digital rendering of the proposed Obama Presidential Center.

Jackson Park was originally designed by Fredrick Law Olmsted and is a registered National Historic Landmark. Because of its historical status, the plans for the center are now under federal review and approval. Many, including community members, are concerned with how much the center will alter Jackson Park and the neighborhood as a whole.

But Michelle Obama asks for the community’s trust; that she and President Obama would never do anything to damage a neighborhood that is so close to their own heritage and family history. “We had to think, where do we put this resource?” she asked. “Well, what better place to put it than in our backyard?”**

For Anthony Clark, the author of The Last Campaign: How Presidents Rewrite History, Run for Posterity & Enshrine Their Legacies, the Obama Center is establishing a significant precedent for the transparency of presidential records. “Freeing NARA to process and produce those records without the interference of the Obama Foundation will be our best hope for learning what really happened during the Obama presidency,” Clark noted, “and, if others follow his example, future presidencies as well.”*

In many ways, the center will still be a place where the narrative of Obama’s legacy is being crafted, just through different means. While it will be interesting to see how the Obama Center continues to proceed, it is also intriguing to think of the precedents he is setting for future libraries.

One can only assume that the future Donald Trump presidential archive, if enough material survives for its existence, will revert back to a more traditional format for a presidential library, or will set new precedents based on President Trump’s own set of values and his perception of his legacy. If I were to wager a guess, his presidential library will be located somewhere near his Mar-A-Lago residence, and subject to the climate change threats that he continually chooses to ignore. But, only time will tell.

*Clark, Anthony. “Presidential Libraries Are a Scam. Could Obama Change that?” Politico. May 7, 2017. presidential-libraries-are-a-scam-could-obama-change-that-215109.

**Quig, A.D., “Obamas defend Jackson Park site at Foundation Summit.” Chicago Defender. October 29, 2019.

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