The National Archives yesterday posted an FAQ on the Obama "Library" which confirms what many of us feared: NARA's "Strategic Vision" is to stop creating new presidential libraries. Going forward, they will all be virtual, starting with Obama's. If SHAFR members do not want the George W. Bush Library to be the last presidential library, they will need to organize and lobby.
As SHAFR's representative on the policy board of the National Coalition for History, I've been trying to learn more about how this decision was made. I can confirm that there was no request for public comment. There was no consultation with the AHA, or any historians as far as I can tell. And there's still no staffing plan to show whether and how NARA will provide research support services equivalent to those at the existing presidential libraries.
To be sure, the enhanced accessibility made possible by digitization, and the possibilities it creates for new kinds of computational research, are important to consider. As our members know, trips to presidential libraries can be expensive. But as NARA itself has confirmed, most of these records are already digital. They could be made available online with no digitization program.
Moreover, digitization does not require dispensing with an actual library where archivists and historians can learn from one another, and where dedicated staff are available to answer phone calls and email. There is no reason why digitized presidential papers cannot also be available in their original form and in their original files, together with related private paper collections. What is more, the scale of the Obama papers, such as 300 million emails, and the challenge of developing new methods to explore them, make it all the more important to have the help of expert archivists, and not just a keyword search engine.
Here is what's really at stake:
1) Will historians ever be able to handle any of the actual papers in actual files? NARA says only if you demonstrate a "compelling need."
2) Will there be archivists available with deep knowledge of the Obama records to advise researchers at College Park? NARA says "No final decisions have been made at this time regarding the number of staff or where they will be located."
3) Will NARA, which is already struggling with a shrinking budget, and IT systems which its own Inspector General judged to be obsolete six years ago, meet the challenge of processing and declassifying hundreds of millions of electronic records? NARA says adding all this to the workload at Archives II will allow it to realize "efficiencies and savings."
So historians need to make our views clear to the Obama Foundation (https://www.obama.org/contact-us/), the leadership of NARA (https://www.archives.gov/contact), and -- most importantly -- the congressmen and senators who just cut NARA's budget by $12 million. And while you are at it, you might ask them about why NARA has given up even trying to stop Donald Trump when he tears up his presidential records in tiny little pieces.
Professor of History