Why We Should Be Grateful for the New Clinton Presidential Library

Roundup: Talking About History

Michael Nelson, in the Chronicle of Higher Ed (Nov. 8, 2004) (subscribers only) :

According to Jon Stewart and the other Daily Show authors of the best-selling America (The Book), a presidential library consists of a tiny room of public records, a large room of sealed records, and a vast museum featuring exhibits like "The President as Young Man," "The President as President," and "The President as Angry Coot."

Apply the usual satirist's discount, and Stewart and Company are not wildly off the mark. Presidential libraries, including the new Clinton library, scheduled to open in Little Rock, Ark., on November 18, are more museums than records and, at least initially, more closed records than public ones.

Like the other libraries, Clinton's is sure to be criticized, although less for how it operates than for what it represents. Presidential libraries have been lambasted for their cost and extravagance, for dispersing important documents to inconvenient locations, and for reifying a president-centered approach to American history.

Although none of these criticisms lack merit, we -- scholars and the public alike -- are better off having presidential libraries than not. If the experience of other libraries is any guide, the acknowledgments page of virtually every serious book that is written about the Clinton presidency and a host of related topics in the years to come will effusively (and accurately) thank the library and its archival staff for their indispensable assistance. The museum will, among other things, whet the appetite of visitors to read some of those books. And the new and on-site University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service will train students whose subsequent careers in civic life will benefit their communities. Such schools are an emerging element of presidential libraries that America (The Book) left out....

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