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US Presidential Libraries Contribute to Research, Education


On April 25, former presidents and cabinet members will be in Dallas for the inauguration of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum. Every modern president has a library in his name starting with Herbert Hoover, who left the White House in 1933. These institutions are the official repositories of presidential records and documents, with oversight from the National Archives. They also serve an educational function.
President Lyndon Baines Johnson, or LBJ, died in 1973. But a life-like animatronic representation of him greets visitors to his library in Austin, Texas.
Visitors find it entertaining. “Pretty cool, a little disconcerting, but very life-like," said one woman.
After a $10 million renovation, the LBJ Presidential Library is now more interactive, with computerized exhibits.
Visitors can listen to some of the more than 640 hours of telephone conversations President Johnson recorded for posterity.
Lyndon Johnson assumed office after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. And though he brought about civil rights laws and anti-poverty programs, his legacy is clouded by the Vietnam war.
LBJ Library Director Mark Updegrove says presidential libraries do not glorify their namesakes and in fact present a full picture of their time in office.
“It is not up to us to direct history and tell people what to think, but we do want them to know what he did and how it impacts your life. What you think about that is up to you," he said.
Presidential libraries provide access to documents for historical research. Updegrove says this reflects the openness of a democratic society. “Those records belong to the people, they do not belong to that president," he said.
A short drive from Austin is another presidential library, that of George W's father, George Herbert Walker Bush.
Like several other presidential libraries, this one has a small-scale oval office. Director Warren Finch says it draws visitors.
“We feel that is one of our key missions in our museums and educational programs is to talk about civics, how the US constitution works, how the government works in practice," he said.
Modern technology provides libraries with a treasure trove of images and audio recordings, but Finch says managing all that material is a challenge.
“There is... about a million photographs, ten thousand cassettes of video tape," he said.
For presidential libraries, preserving and managing materials of historic importance is a continuing enterprise, made difficult by the sheer size of the collections they keep.
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