October is American Archives Month! We’re celebrating the work of archivists and the importance of archives with a series of blog posts about the Presidential libraries. The records created by Presidents while in office will become part of the National Archives, and eventually will be used by researchers. Here’s how it happens!
Today’s post comes from Alan Lowe, Director of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum
My introduction to Presidential transitions came in a bit of a baptism of fire. I had transferred from the Ronald Reagan Library to Washington, DC, in early 1992 to work in the Office of Presidential Libraries.
Later that year, Bill Clinton defeated George H. W. Bush, and suddenly we had to quickly plan a Presidential move. The day after the election, I was detailed along with others to the White House.
From then until inauguration day, I worked with terrific NARA, White House, and Department of Defense colleagues to inventory, box, palletize, and move a huge amount of material out of the White House complex.
Some of my previous experiences at Reagan helped—while working there as an archivist, I was part of that team as we moved from our temporary facility in Los Angeles to the permanent library in Simi Valley. But still I had a lot to learn in the pressure-filled, exhilarating atmosphere of a Presidential move.
These lessons were very useful later when I was part of the team that helped plan President Clinton’s materials move to Little Rock. Luckily we had plenty of time to get ready, so we started over a year before the actual move was to commence.
This time, rather than working at the White House, my effort was in part directed toward helping put together the overall plan for the effort. But I especially focused on finding a temporary facility in Little Rock.
I spent a lot of time crawling around buildings trying to find one suitable for the collections and for our staff members, working very closely with my NARA colleague Steve Hannestad.
We finally found a used car dealership that was renovated to be a very good temporary home for the library. The seemingly infinite number of details involved in a Presidential move can be a bit overwhelming. As with everything, the key to success was organization and teamwork—and keeping a good sense of humor.
I left NARA in 2003 to start up the Howard Baker Center for Public Policy in Knoxville, TN. When I was asked to come back to be Director of the George W. Bush Library, one of the biggest reasons I couldn’t resist the offer was I knew I would be part of building a Presidential library from the ground up.
The materials had already been moved to a temporary facility in Lewisville, TX, just north of Dallas. So a great deal of my focus upon arriving in Texas in April 2009 was placed on the design of the permanent facility and of the museum.
I worked very closely with the architectural and exhibit design teams, and of course with our foundation, NARA colleagues, and President and Mrs. Bush. It was a very exciting time, and thankfully the team worked extraordinarily well together.
The building on the campus of Southern Methodist University near downtown Dallas is everything we hoped it would be. And I am very proud of the museum which I think, in a very interactive way, does a great job of telling the fascinating story of an extremely consequential time in American history.
Of course, constructing the facility was just part of the job. In those first years in Lewisville, we put together an amazing staff, started working on the collections, and created terrific partnerships in the community, especially with SMU.
Finally in late 2012, we were ready to start moving into our new home, with a plan of dedicating the facility early the next year.
Our move started in November 2012 and took until early March to complete, given the enormous volume of records and artifacts.
At the same time, we were hard at work installing the permanent museum exhibit. This all led to our formal dedication on April 25, 2013, featuring Presidents Carter, Bush 41, Clinton, Bush 43, and Obama.
I have been fortunate during my career at NARA to see Presidential transitions from several different angles—from planning and executing moves out of the White House, to designing library facilities and museums and eventually opening them to our visiting public, students, and researchers.
I have found that those first few years are absolutely critical in determining the success of the library. Safely transferring the records and artifacts, and then making sure the building and museum are well done, of course, are all vitally important elements for success.
But so are hiring a great staff and establishing excellent relationships with the President, with the foundation, and with other partners. None of those things can wait for the permanent library. They are all a critical part of ensuring a good transition and of creating a Presidential library that will be a vital part of its community and a successful part of the National Archives.
Learn more about Presidential Libraries.