All the President's Memories
Presidential libraries are treasure troves for researchers, history buffs, political junkies and educators.
When the George W. Bush Presidential Library opens its doors in spring 2013, Texas will have a brand-new bragging right. The state will be home to three of the nation’s 13 presidential libraries — the most of any state.
Under the Presidential Libraries Act of 1955, the National Archives and Records Administration operates all presidential libraries. The law codified a tradition that began with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who raised private funds to build the first presidential library and then gave it to the U.S. government to operate through the National Archives.
Presidential libraries aren’t libraries in the traditional sense — they’re repositories for papers, records and other artifacts that document the many events and decisions of a presidential administration. The libraries are treasure troves for researchers, history buffs, political junkies and educators.
Artist’s conception of the new George W. Bush Presidential Library planned for Dallas. Photo courtesy of the George W. Bush Presidential Library.
The new Bush library, to be located on the Southern Methodist University (SMU) campus in Dallas, joins the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum in Austin and the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum in College Station, giving our state a unique trifecta in American history.
Visitors will be able to see items such as the bullhorn “W” used at the World Trade Center site on September 14, 2001; the parachute his father used in his 85th birthday jump with the Golden Knights; and the love letters a young Lyndon Johnson penned while courting Lady Bird.
“There are people who collect trips to presidential libraries like others collect stamps,” says Mark Updegrove, LBJ Library director. “They enjoy visiting them and checking them off their list. Here in Texas, they’ll have an opportunity to experience more than 20 years of American presidential history.”
Above: The George Bush Presidential Library and Museum in College Station. Photo courtesy of the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum.
About 150,000 people visit the Bush library in College Station annually, while the Johnson library attracts upwards of 250,000 visitors.
Today, about 150,000 people visit the Bush library in College Station annually, while the Johnson library attracts more than 250,000 visitors. Since Texas’ latest presidential library will be located in a city three times Austin’s size, and considerably more accessible than College Station — the largest U.S. city not served by a major highway — it’s a good bet the new library will meet or exceed those attendance figures.
Director, George W. Bush
At present, the materials of the George W. Bush library are being stored in Lewisville. Archivists and library staff are poring through and readying a mammoth collection of some 43,000 artifacts, nearly 4 million photographs and 80 terabytes of electronic information, including nearly 210 million emails, according to Alan Lowe, director of the library. By contrast, the first administration of the Internet era, President Clinton’s, produced just four terabytes of electronic data, says Lowe.
And just as the digital era has changed the type of information presidents generate, so too has it altered the expectations of museum visitors. The challenge for presidential libraries is to make the experience fun and engaging to younger Americans raised on video games and computer networks. “People today are used to being in control of their learning experiences,” says Updegrove.
The elder George Bush's library recently revamped its core collection, going from just four interactive exhibits to 99. At present, its most popular interactive exhibit is the Situation Room, where touch screens allow visitors to meet and learn about the various players in the Gulf War.
But it doesn’t stop there. “It’s a multi-layered experience,” reports Warren Finch, director of the George Bush library. “Visitors are confronted with various global scenarios and can compare their responses to how President Bush handled the same situations.” Library guests also can access video news for every day of the war to see how it was reported to the country and around the world.
The megaphone (above) President George W. Bush used to address New York City firefighters and rescue workers after the 9/11 attacks (below). Photos courtesy of the George W. Bush Presidential Library.
Similarly, the George W. Bush library will feature a Decision Theatre, which will challenge visitors to put themselves in presidential shoes and consider various options to the issues the president confronted. When guests want a break from the rigors of executive branch decision-making, they can stop at a Texas Rose Garden, a facsimile of the original at the White House.
The three library directors, all close friends from years of working in the presidential library system, are excited about the possibilities of collaborative exhibits, lectures and educational programming. Finch notes that the George Bush and Johnson libraries joined forces a few years ago to mark the 50th anniversary of NASA.
Education is an important mission for of all presidential libraries, and the new library at SMU will be no exception.
“We’re spending a lot of time thinking about how to best serve the community and the state, providing educators with interesting lesson plans they can use and we plan to offer an array of educational events at the museum,” says Lowe. “President Bush and the First Lady have a long-term vision and want the museum to be relevant for students and teachers both today and 50 years from now.” FN