There will be no Barack Obama Presidential Library.

Think about that for a moment. Let it sink in.

Rendering of the proposed Obama Presidential Center in Chicago as viewed from the south (Image courtesy of DBOX)

The nation’s first African American president will not have a presidential library administered by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), as do his thirteen predecessors.

As an archivist and as an American, I am deeply troubled and disappointed by the recent announcement that the Obama Presidential Center, to be located in Chicago’s Jackson Park, will not be part of the presidential library system that was founded by Franklin D. Roosevelt.

This development seems cloaked in mystery and intrigue because as early as the fall of 2015, the archivist of the United States, David Ferriero, wrote in a NARA publication and was quoted in the press as stating that the National Archives was readying its transition plan to move Obama records to Chicago to be part of a presidential library.

A job posting was even issued for a director of the library to be located there. As a NARA alumnus myself, I also am aware that NARA recruited archival staff for an Obama Library, and I know people who were hired specifically for that location but who now face uncertainty as to their futures. NARA even spoke to the press about director and staff recruitment efforts.

So something strange happened on the way to the South Side. The first clue that things were amiss was the fact that in the aforementioned recruitment of a library director, the position did not include responsibilities for directing the library’s museum. This was highly unusual and a break from precedent. Typically, a NARA presidential library director directs the entire library complex, including both the archival and the museum operations. Directors work closely with presidential foundations that fund the costs of exhibits contained in the museums, but the museums themselves are staffed—like the archival facilities—by government professionals.

In the case of the Obama library director, though, the job posting indicated the position would manage only the on-site archives, not the museum. The Obama Foundation, not NARA, was recruiting a separate museum director, which meant that there would be two centers of authority at the complex. At the time, this seemed like a questionable arrangement from a management perspective and one fraught with potential conflicts as the two directors partnered on exhibits, educational and public programs, social media, and website content. Read more…


The above is an excerpt from Bob Clark’s “In Defense of Presidential Libraries: Why the Failure to Build an Obama Library Is Bad for Democracy,” from  Roundtable: The Future of the Presidential Library, The Public Historian, Vol. 40 No. 2, May 2018; (pp. 96-103) DOI: 10.1525/tph.2018.40.2.96.