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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Curator: Andrew Grafton, U.S. National Archives History Office
Editors: Jessie Kratz, Mary Ryan
Sarah Malcom, Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum