Tuesday, June 14, 2005

The Gypsy Librarian Visits G.H.W. Bush's Presidential Library

In a previous post, I mentioned that I had done some local travelling; this is one of the places I visited, and it took me a while to gather some of my thoughts. So, here goes.

Two Saturdays ago (June 4th, 2005), my family and I visited the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum in College Station, Texas. To me, this seemed like one of those sites that locals often take for granted. People know it is there, and they often intend to visit it at one point, but they may not get around to doing so. That day, we were travelling up north so my wife could attend a family reunion. As it turns out, a large branch on her father's side live in Texas (that is another story, likely for my personal journal). At any rate, we drive past College Station, so we decided this time to get out of the highway and go in. By now, my wife is used to these sudden impulses to see places on the side of the road. I don't consider myself a gypsy for nothing; this wandering curiosity is a big part of it. I see a good side trip, and I go for it. Also, this sense of curiosity is why I like to drive to conferences whenever possible (not to mention to avoid the atrocious service on planes). I usually try to take an extra day when I do professional travel to allow for some sightseeing. Besides, I have been to some conferences where the side trip was better than the conference itself. I will qualify that I have not attended a librarian related conference yet; all my conferences have been related to my other academic interests, mostly literary studies. I also clarify that I have been to some pretty good conferences. Overall, I just like the idea that I can learn something new and see something different when I get off the main roads.

To get back on track, travelling to College Station is actually a pretty pleasant drive from where I live. The library's location is very nice with some good green areas. Visitors only get to see the museum part; you have to be a researcher to have access to the archives. We were told that the former President and hiw wife keep an apartment on the grounds, but as it is hot in Texas, they are now spending time in Maine. After you empty your pockets and go through the metal detector, visitors find themselves in the lobby area. To the right, we found a display of gifts the President had received from various Middle Eastern dignitaries. There is also a small theater where visitors can watch a short (17 minutes) biopic/orientation film about the President and his library. The film is actually well made and pretty interesting. It gives a good overview of his life and work, especially for people who may not be as familiar with Mr. G.H.W. Bush. After the film, which runs every half hour, you can go into the museum itself.

Presidential Libraries usually serve the communities in various ways besides their role in preserving the legacy of a President. Providing educational experiences is one of those forms of community service. To that end, this library, like the others, has a couple of side exhibition spaces that provide changing exhibits on various topics. During our visit, there was a exhibit of works by Peter Sis, a children's writer and illustrator. The exhibit features his illustrations, but copies of his books are available as well for people to peruse. The exhibit will be there until July 4th.

The museum itself features a chronological exhibition of the life and achievements of President George H.W. Bush. Among the artifacts is a restored World War II bomber, the same type he flew during the war. There are photos, documents, memorabilia, portraits and regalia, and various interactive exhibits. My daughter found the exhibit with the sand clock particularly neat. The exhibit itself is a short film explaining the events leading to the First Gulf War, using the image of the sand clock to show how Saddam's time was running out. Other interesting exhibits include the recreation of his office at Camp David, the section of Air Force One, and the piece from the Berlin Wall.

Currently, the Presidential Library System consists of 11 libraries administered by the National Archives and Records Administration, an independendent federal agency with the mission "to ensure ready access to the essential evidence that documents the rights of American citizens, the actions of Federal officials, and the national experience" (from the NARA website). Initially, Presidential papers and records were seen as the President's personal property. This changed with the 1978 Presidential Records Act that "established that Presidential records that document the constitutional, statutory, and ceremonial duties of the President are the property of the United States Government. After the President leaves office, the Archivist of the United States assumes custody of the records." In 1986, the Presidential Libraries Act began requiring private endowments in relation to a library's size, which NARA then uses to offset some of the costs to maintain a Presidential Library. This information can be found on NARA's website section about the Presidential Libraries. These details, for one, explain about the gifts a President receives from dignitaries, which are often part of rituals or ceremonies. Even though the individual President receives the gifts, he does so on behalf of the American people, and it is one of the President's "ceremonial duties" (as a Head of State). I mentioned at the moment there are 11 libraries. The Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace is about to become the 12th library of the NARA system. NARA maintains a Nixon Presidential Materials Project, and then there is the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace, which is currently run by a private foundation. This may happen as early as 2006. Then, when George W. Bush leaves office, he will eventually build a library as well, so the number of Presidential LIbraries will continue to grow. Oh well, it's one down and ten to go (or 11, or 12 down the road, etc.).

I am hoping to eventually visit all of the Presidential Libraries, which is a goal many Government Documents librarians share. I learned about this when I took my course in Government Documents. I had a very inspiring GovDocs librarian who made me want to go run a Depository Library someplace just to assure access to government information for the people. Even though my career path took me elsewhere, I am still very fascinated by GovDocs and access to information and keeping the government accountable. I use GovDocs whenever I can in my reference and instruction work.

Overall, these Presidential Libraries are definitely places everyone should see, regardless of political affiliations or beliefs. I got a feeling from my visit that these places hold a piece of history, a moment in time. Places like the G.H.W. Bush Presidential Library let us see not only a Presidency but a part of history. These library/museums are an excellent educational experience for the young and the not so young. When you show your child that piece of the Berlin Wall, she asks why did those people build that wall. It can be a moment of epiphany depending on what you tell that 8 year old, letting her read a little on her own as well. I think I may have told her something along the lines of some people did not want other people to leave a city and be free. I know, maybe a bit too simplistic, but it worked. In the end, the people locked up eventually brought the wall down. I am of the generation that saw the wall come down, but it was already up when I got here, so to speak. That moment is just one example of the opportunities that visiting places like this can provide. So, I urge readers. Take a trip back in time, whether it is the newest library, President Clinton's, or any other, go and learn something. Maybe you can recall a President from your time, or you learn about one before your time. At any rate, it is something well worth exploring. Do note that these libraries are often located either in a President's birthplace, their state, or a place that holds some sentimental value to the President, so you may have to travel a bit to get to places like Independence, Missouri, where President Truman's library is located. I know that I am looking forward to the next one.

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