Leaving a Legacy: FDR and the Roots of the Presidential Library System

U.S. National Archives

On December 10, 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced that he would be donating land from his estate at Hyde Park, New York, to house his Presidential papers in the to-be-constructed Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library. In doing so, FDR set a precedent that expanded the scope of federal record keeping, and ensured the preservation of Presidential records for generations to come. This exhibit explores the foundation of the first Presidential library and the impact that FDR had on the Presidential Library System.

President Roosevelt: Historian-in-Chief
When Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in 1933, he made it a goal of his administration to systematically accumulate, store, and preserve federal records. Roosevelt understood the importance of primary sources as the foundation of a nation's history. Accordingly, the Roosevelt administration made steps in its first few years in office to ensure that the United States' wealth of documents, photographs, and artifacts would not be lost.

While lifting the United States out of the Great Depression was the main focus of his administration's first years, FDR wasted no time in taking steps to collect and protect pieces of American history. Soon after assuming the Presidency, Roosevelt signed into law the National Archives Act.

The National Archives Act gave control of federal record keeping to one central government agency, the National Archives, headed by the newly created Archivist of the United States. The Archivist was to be appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. The act was an important first step toward streamlining the storage of federal documents and was among many such actions that FDR took during his time as President.

Though the idea of an archives building had been in the works for the better part of three decades, and the groundbreaking had taken place under President Herbert Hoover, the National Archives Building officially opened in 1937 during FDR's administration. Roosevelt understood the importance of housing precious and historically significant federal documents in a safe, secure location. As he once quipped to the first Archivist R.D.W. Connor, "As you know--it's my baby!"

Seen here: First Archivist of the United States, R.D.W. Connor. Connor's work as Archivist during the early years of the National Archives was invaluable. He and his small staff were charged with collecting and organizing surviving federal documents for their transfer to the National Archives Building. Connor's experience in tracking down various federal records influenced FDR to make more concrete plans for his own Presidential papers.

Laying the Groundwork for a Library
Soon after establishing the National Archives and installing Connor as the first Archivist, FDR began to consider the future of his own personal collections. Previous Presidents had retained personal ownership of their own Presidential papers, and many had donated or destroyed them upon leaving office. Roosevelt, however, had a different vision in mind.

In a speech delivered during his regularly scheduled press briefing on December 10, 1938, Roosevelt outlined his plan for what would become the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library. Unsatisfied with the distribution of Presidential records that had preceded him, Roosevelt sought to hold all of his papers in one central location for use by future researchers.

Roosevelt's vision for the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library included keeping all documents from his career together. His goal in doing so was twofold: to preserve the papers well into the future, and to provide them as a resource for generations of researchers to come. Seen here: a transcript of FDR's press conference on December 10, 1938, announcing the foundation of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library.

Though Roosevelt wished for his papers to be opened to the public and administered by the federal government, he did not want the costs of building the library to be at the government's expense. Therefore, FDR announced that his Presidential library would be located on a portion of his estate in Hyde Park, New York, and would be built with funds that he raised privately. After completion, the building and grounds would be donated to the National Archives along with his papers.

In his press conference, Roosevelt emphasized the value of a central repository for his papers, stating that "it is my desire that they be kept as a whole and intact in their original condition, available to scholars of the future in one definite locality."

Here a Roosevelt spokesman states that placing control of the President's papers under the National Archives ensured their safekeeping into the future.

Hyde Park Construction, Dedication, and Opening for Use
Once Congress authorized the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library on July 18, 1939, preparations for the transfer of his papers began in Hyde Park. Upon completion, the FDR Library was designed to not only house Presidential papers but also hold public exhibits and function as a second working office for President Roosevelt. Seen here is FDR giving his first public radio address from the President's study in the FDR Library on September 1, 1941.

During the years prior to his announcement on the library, President Roosevelt was already busy at work planning the library's design. This sketch, drawn by FDR on April 12, 1937, shows his preliminary layout for the building.

FDR's sketches include blueprints for the layout of the building, as well as a design for the facade. These early plans closely resemble the building as it was originally constructed.

Soon after Roosevelt's announcement, Congress passed a joint resolution approving the project and construction began at Hyde Park. Seen here is the partially finished FDR Library photographed in December 1939.

FDR was deeply invested in the project and often visited the construction site to examine the library's progress, as seen here.

The interior of the library was designed to house several public exhibits detailing important periods and events in Roosevelt's career. This photo shows the inside of the building prior to exhibit installation.

As a devoted historian, FDR marked the significance of his library with a public cornerstone laying ceremony.

The Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum was dedicated on June 30, 1941. The celebration represented the beginning of the Presidential Library System as a part of the National Archives. FDR himself spoke at the library's dedication ceremony.

The dedication ceremony was attended by a handful of members of the press as well as a few hundred local New York residents.

Roosevelt saw his library as not only a resource for academic research, but as an educational resource for the public.

FDR's sudden death on April 12, 1945, left the nation reeling. Following a state funeral at the White House, Roosevelt's remains were carried to his library at Hyde Park, which is his final resting place.

In the years after Roosevelt's death, FDR Library staff prepared for the opening of his collections for public use. Among these preparations was a small expansion of the library, including the construction of a larger parking lot, shown here.

Eleanor Roosevelt became heavily involved in the organization of her husband's library in the years after his death. She worked extensively to prepare FDR's collections for public use. Shown here: Eleanor Roosevelt attending the opening of the FDR papers at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum on March 17, 1950.

Establishing a Network of Libraries
The Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library was the first to be established as a federal resource, but it was not the last. In the decades following Roosevelt's death, each subsequent former President has established his own Presidential library. FDR's legacy has extended the promise of Presidential record keeping to 13 separate repositories of Presidential papers, all under the administration of the National Archives. 

Like FDR before him, Truman saw the value in keeping his Presidential papers housed in one place. Following his Presidency, Truman announced that he would build his own Presidential library in his hometown of Independence, Missouri. Seen here is President Truman at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum, May 8, 1955.

The Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Musuem was dedicated on July 6, 1957. Former Presidents Truman and Herbert Hoover attended the celebration.

The Presidential Libraries Act of 1955 was an important step toward the Presidential Library System that is in place today. Heavily favored by Truman, the act authorized the federal government to accept donations of Presidential papers and buildings for use as Presidential libraries. Truman hoped that the act would ensure that subsequent Presidents would establish central archives for their papers.

Though he left office before FDR, former President Herbert Hoover had kept the majority of his Presidential papers together in good condition. Wanting to align the care of his collection with those of Roosevelt and Truman, Hoover announced that he too would construct a Presidential library to house his papers. Seen here is the exterior of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum in West Branch, Iowa, circa 1970.

Once again, both Presidents Truman and Hoover were present at a library dedication--this time for the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum. The ceremony took place on August 10, 1962, Hoover's 88th birthday.

Building for the Future: Presidential Libraries in the 21st Century
On June 30, 2016, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library celebrated its 75th Anniversary, and with it, 75 years of the Presidential Library System. As the libraries transition into a digital age, they require renovation, care, and reimagination to preserve and extend their legacy for future generations. This includes the construction and operation of new libraries, such as the forthcoming Barack Obama Presidential Library, set to open in 2020. Seen here is Archivist David S. Ferriero at an exhibit at the newly renovated Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum.

In order to address the deteriorating conditions of the building and update exhibits, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum began extensive renovations in June of 2010. Here a worker installs new piping in the basement of the building.

Renovation construction took a full three years. Although the building went through significant structural repair, some exhibits remained open throughout the renovation.

The Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum was rededicated on June 30, 2013, the 72nd anniversary of its opening. Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero delivered a speech at the rededication ceremony.

The FDR Library renovation preserved the building and its collections, and guaranteed their continued accessibility to the public. Shown here is a plaque installed in the library on the day of the rededication ceremony.

The FDR Library renovation included an expansion and facelift for the museum's exhibits.

The library is also better equipped to accommodate the numerous researchers who use their vast collections. Here, researchers study documents in the FDR Library reading room.

In addition to exhibits and research, the FDR Library also puts on a variety of public programs, including lectures, book signings, and educational programs. Here, a museum employee shows photographs to elementary school children at an event.

The legacy of FDR's initial commitment to preserving Presidential papers lives on to this day. Inspired by his ideas, each President who has followed FDR has committed to building his own Presidential library to house his papers. Most recently, the George W. Bush Presidential Library was opened on May 1, 2013, on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.

As the Office of Presidential Libraries looks forward, plans are already under way for the future. Set to open in 2020 on the south side of Chicago, the Barack Obama Presidential Library will extend FDR's legacy while continuing to push the mission of the Presidential libraries forward. Seen here: President Obama speaks at a naturalization ceremony in the National Archives Building, December 15, 2015.

A National Archives History Office Exhibit
Credits: Story

Curator: Andrew Grafton, U.S. National Archives History Office
Editors: Jessie Kratz, Mary Ryan

Special Thanks:
Sarah Malcom, Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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