Historians happy Congress declines to fund Woodrow Wilson presidential library

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The bill was introduced by Congressman Robert Goodlatte (R-VA) and supported by eleven members of the Virginia Congressional delegation. The bill sought to authorize the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) to make a grant contribution of an undisclosed amount at some future undisclosed date toward the establishment of the "Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library" in Staunton, Virginia.

This legislation was never subjected to the scrutiny of a congressional hearing. It was rammed through the House in late September in an effort to enact the measure and provide federal funding for a private museum in Virginia prior to the 150th anniversary of the birth of President Woodrow Wilson on 10 December 2006. If enacted the bill would have diverted NARA funds to a private museum that has neither any significant library holdings nor any archival collection associated with President Wilson (the Wilson papers, for example, are housed at Princeton University). The measure specified that federal money would be channeled to the site by NARA to "provide interpretive and educational services that communicate the meaning of the life of Woodrow Wilson," with the proviso that "the Archivist shall have no involvement in the actual operations of the library, except at the request of the non-Federal entity responsible for the operation of the library."

National Archives insiders report strong opposition to the legislation by professional staff. According to one source, had the measure come to hearing, NARA would have opposed the bill for a variety of reasons, perhaps chief of which would be that the bill would have set a dangerous precedent in which other private presidential museums and historic sites would feel at liberty to pursue special earmarked funding for their private institutions as well. With NARA running a $10-$12 million projected shortfall in FY 2007, the agency clearly cannot afford a diversion of limited funds to such special-interest purposes. In addition, designations by small historic sites and museums claiming to be "presidential libraries" add to the already confusing miscellany of nomenclature relating to presidential libraries, thus making it that much harder for the general public to understand what is and what is not a true presidential library.

For the reasons cited above, the National Coalition for History opposed enactment of this measure and communicated that opposition to Virginia senators and key members of the Senate, including members of the Homeland Security Committee to which the bill was referred for consideration.

While the measure was not acted on in the 109th Congress, according to a spokesperson for Representative Goodlatte, the Congressman plans to reintroduce the bill and hopes to see the measure enacted early in the 110th Congress.

Readers who reside in Virginia who wish to make their voices heard on this measure are encouraged to contact their House member or senator and express your views on the proposed legislation. Member offices can be reached via the Capitol switchboard at (202) 224-3121.

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Michael Glen Wade - 12/20/2006

Public funding for a private library holding minimal research materials on an already much-studied president. What else needs to be said? Oh, there is one more thing, actually....PORK.