September 12, 2005
Carter Library has no books to lend but plenty of history to share
BY tony clark
What do you call a library that doesn’t have any books to check out?
“Surprisingly, they are some of the most important and unique libraries in the country,” Jay Hakes explained. “They are presidential libraries.”
Hakes is director of the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum in Atlanta, one of 11 presidential libraries operated by the National Archives and Records Administration and the only presidential library in the Southeast. The Carter Library has more than 27 million pages of documents, 1 million feet of film, 600,000 photographs, 2,500 hours of audiotape and 1,250 hours of videotape.
Presidential libraries are a combination of a presidential museum, which exhibits historic artifacts from a president’s life, career and administration, and an archive for preserving and presenting his papers, records and other materials.
“The basic difference between libraries and archives,” Carter Library archivist James Yancey said, “is every library contains basically the same thing, while each archive is unique in the material it holds.”
President Franklin Roosevelt started the presidential library system in 1939 by donating his personal and presidential papers to the federal government, as well as pledging part of his Hyde Park estate for the construction of a library and museum. In so doing, FDR is responsible for the confusion felt almost every week by students arriving at the library’s doors.
“Roosevelt came from an era and a social class where they had libraries in their homes. He had one in his home and that’s where he kept his records,” said Carter Library archivist Dave Stanhope. “When Roosevelt decided [to donate his papers] he said, ‘I will give my library over to the government,’ literally.” And the name “library” stuck.
Carter was the last president to own his presidential papers. Following the Watergate scandal, Congress passed the Presidential Records Act of 1978. It established that presidential records documenting any constitutional, statutory and ceremonial duties of the president are government property. When a president leaves office, the U.S. Archivist takes custody of the records, and a president’s library become the repository for those records.
“What’s invaluable about Carter’s collection,” Yancey said, “is that he constantly wrote notes about how he felt, what he thought. The notes are a valuable personal insight.”
Each document is reviewed for its security classification. Yancey processes some of the most sensitive material in the library. He said the vast majority of documents have their security classification lowered over time, then are made open to the public.
“It’s not as exhilarating as you may think because, you know, you can’t talk about it,” Yancey said of examining classified material.
But for some scholars and researchers, there is nothing quite like it. “I have heard historians talk about the tactile pleasure in doing research and actually touching these original documents,” Bohanan said. “It’s something psychological in historians, and it’s the reason most archivists are historians.”
The research room at the Carter Library opened in 1987 and has been providing a window into the Carter administration ever since. “We have what we call a clean research room policy,” Bohanan explained. “You don’t take anything into the room, except possibly a laptop computer to take notes. We give you paper; we give you stuff to write with. That way we know you’re not going to leave with anything.”
Some of the most frequent requests for library material are for photographs and films. “They are probably far more used than any of the other records here, even though the importance of understanding our nation comes out in the policy and paper records,” said Stanhope, an audiovisual archivist. He believes the pictures are important because “they capture the essence of an administration, and they lend a humanness or humanity to the historic documents.”
Some photo requests have more to do with humor than history. Among the most requested is a photo of Carter and the “killer rabbit.”
“The killer rabbit is the story of when President Carter literally had to shoo away a rabbit from his boat,” Stanhope said. “The rabbit had been chased into the pond by a dog, and as it swam across the pond, it came to his boat and he shooed it away. Months later, Press Secretary Jody Powell was reminiscing about the story with a White House reporter, [who] wrote the story about Carter’s run-in with a ‘killer rabbit.’
“Everybody on the Washington beat took this story and just went to town with it, especially after they learned there was a photo,” he continued. “To this day, it is one of our most most requested images.”
The archivists said it is not their role to protect or glorify the president. “We look at our job professionally in providing these materials to the American people, not because we have any kind of partisan ideals,” Stanhope said. “We are the only nation that makes their chief executive’s records available to the public. No other nation really does that. No other nation ever has.”