The 60th Anniversary of the Presidential Library Act of 1955

Today’s post comes from Meagan Frenzer, graduate research intern for the National Archives History Office in Washington, DC.

Presidential Libraries Act of 1955, August 12, 1955. (General Records of the U.S. Government, National Archives)

Presidential Libraries Act of 1955, August 12, 1955. (General Records of the U.S. Government, National Archives)

Signed into law on August 12, 1955, the Presidential Libraries Act of 1955 (PLA) established a system to preserve and make accessible Presidential records through the creation of privately erected and Federally maintained libraries.

The precedent for the PLA began with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Before President Roosevelt’s terms, Presidential records were considered private property, which Presidents took with them upon leaving office.

They then donated the papers to repositories like the Library of Congress, or their collections remained at their estates.

President Roosevelt hoped to change this tradition by creating a single location where all of his papers would be available for the public.

He proposed the creation of a library, which would be donated to the U.S. Government. This library would then come under the control of the National Archives, which was established during Roosevelt’s administration.

FDR speaking at the dedication of the FDR Library and Museum in Hyde Park, NY, June 30, 1941. (FDR Library, National Archives)

FDR speaking at the dedication of the FDR Library in Hyde Park, NY, June 30, 1941. (FDR Library, National Archives)

Though President Roosevelt’s actions regularized the procedures of preserving the papers of future Presidents, other Presidents encountered difficulties when trying to emulate their predecessor.

For instance, governmental budgetary concerns regarding Presidential libraries slowed the transfer process for President Harry S. Truman’s Presidential materials. Truman therefore had to bring his materials with him back to Kansas City, Missouri, after his Presidency.

The Federal Records Act of 1950 hoped to fix these issues by allowing the Government to accept deposits of Presidential papers. But the act proved unsuitable for Truman’s donation.

In January 1955, David Lloyd, a Truman aide, sent Archivist of the United States Wayne Grover a draft resolution that would authorize the Government to accept the Truman Library.

Harry S. Truman at Groundbreaking for Truman Library,  May 8, 1955. (National Archives Identifier 6789287)

Harry S. Truman at the Truman Library groundbreaking, May 8, 1955. (National Archives Identifier 6789287)

Grover revised Lloyd’s draft to allow the Government to accept libraries from any President, past or future.

He also inserted language that allowed states, universities, foundations, and institutes to become partners with the Government in establishing Presidential libraries.

Grover was the primary witness speaking in support of the act when it came before Congress. No one testified in opposition, and the legislation passed without controversy.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Presidential Libraries Act of 1955 into law.

Since its passage, the Presidential Libraries Act of 1955 has been used 13 times to bring Presidential libraries into Government control.

For more information about the Presidential Libraries Acts, read the Prologue article The Presidential Libraries Act after 50 Years.

The Archivist of the United States, David Ferriero, accepts custody of the George W. Bush Library on April 24, 2013.

Archivist of the United States,David Ferriero accepts custody of the George W. Bush Library on April 24, 2013.

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