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  • Letter to the Editor
  • Cynthia M. Koch, Ph.D.

There is much truth in the articles by Bob Clark, Benjamin Hufbauer, and Michael Devine on the future of presidential libraries. But my personal experience as director of the FDR Library and Museum (1999–2011) taught me one additional truth: NARA does not want to be in the museum business, or in the business of public programming more generally.

Despite the presence of museums within all of the presidential libraries, NARA has defined its mission solely in terms of its archival and records storage functions. For years it has deliberately and quite consciously ‘‘outsourced’’ its responsibilities for museums and public programs to presidential library foundations. As a result, despite its responsibility to administer these museums in keeping with professional standards for balanced historical interpretation, NARA has not done so when faced with opposition from library foundations.

The consequences of NARA’s failure to embrace the presidential library museums have been grave and are at the root of the ongoing crisis. NARA made a policy decision that congressionally appropriated funding can only be spent on archival and preservation functions, building security, and maintenance; it cannot be spent on museum exhibitions and other forms of public engagement. Monies earned from visitor admission fees, gift shop sales, and private contributions may be used for exhibits and public programs, but those funds are also required to support staff salaries for individuals involved in public programming. Little remains for exhibits, which are expensive undertakings.

Exhibits are therefore where foundation support becomes crucial. Other federal agencies depend on private foundations to support part of their programmatic mission, but they do so under the terms of an operating agreement that spells out mutual expectations and requirements. Not so with NARA. Its philosophy is quite simple— with the power to fund comes the power to dictate content. Moreover, with no programmatic operating agreements, library foundations are not obligated to support the libraries at all.

Library foundations may have offices within presidential libraries and conduct fundraising campaigns in the libraries’ names, but NARA does not require any fixed contribution in exchange for their privileged use of the presidential library ‘‘brand.’’ (The large sums raised as ‘‘endowments’’ for new libraries—discouraging as they are to the development of a fruitful public-private partnership—are dedicated to offset building-operating costs, not to support current exhibits and programs. And of course older libraries have no endowments whatsoever.) As Michael Devine points out, library foundations support a range of worthy projects but these activities have little or nothing to do with the libraries. The result is that exhibits in libraries are often underfunded and outdated—or their content is subject to foundation approval if the library’s foundation agrees to fund an exhibition.

Devine also describes the tortured relationship between library directors and their foundations. I experienced some of the same stresses. I believe the source of the problem was that until recently directors of the older presidential libraries like Roosevelt and Truman were civil servants hired with the understanding that their libraries could be administered professionally. We believed that we had the authority and job protection to run the libraries without political interference, but our position was often contested since lines of authority were never clarified by NARA. Directors of the ‘‘newer’’ libraries have traditionally been members of the executive service and their job performance is understood to be subject to the approval of living presidents and their families. Now all presidential library directors are part of the executive service and there is no expectation of job protection should their professional judgment run counter to the requirements of the foundations.

NARA’s abnegation of its professional and public responsibilities must be recognized for what it is—a result of the ongoing influence of money and politics within one of the most important historical agencies of our government. It undermines the professionalism of government employees and corrupts public understanding of presidential history; it also leads to public confusion about the administration of these ostensibly governmentrun institutions. Despite Bob Clark’s eloquent argument for the Roosevelt model of a single institution with a dedicated professional staff that houses presidential papers as well as artifact...


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