The Harry S. Truman Presidential Library: The 30-Year Journey

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 Emily Niekrasz, an intern in the National Archives History Office in Washington, DC.

Photograph of Harry S. Truman in his Office at the Truman Library, July 1961. (National Archives Identifier 6233777)

Photograph of Harry S. Truman in his Office at the Truman Library, July 1961. (National Archives Identifier 6233777)

In the 1960s, if one called the Harry S. Truman Library, the former President himself may have answered.

Although Truman was apprehensive about constructing a “shrine” to himself—especially while he was still living—he understood the importance of preserving his Presidential papers for future scholars and administrations.

However, because the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library was the only precedent, the Presidential Libraries Act was still not law. The slow process of construction and planning a library meant that Truman’s papers were without a permanent home for years.

In January 1953, most of Truman’s papers were moved in 12 trucks from Washington, DC, to the Jackson County Courthouse in Kansas City, MO, where the archival process of sorting through his papers began.

Even after the move, however, the President and First Lady Bess Truman continued to be overwhelmed by the volume of records.

Letter from Harry S. Truman to Eleanor Roosevelt, February 18, 1953 (National Archives Identifier 4708859)

Letter from Harry S. Truman to Eleanor Roosevelt, February 18, 1953 (National Archives Identifier 4708859)

On February 18, 1953, President Truman wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt that there were papers and significant items in two places in Kansas City and in an office in the Federal Reserve Bank Building.

Truman continued, “I don’t know whether we will ever get on top of it or not.”

While the Trumans struggled to manage papers at home, archivists attempted to organize papers while coping with yet another upcoming move.

In the fall of 1954, because new judges were added to the courts in Kansas City, the Truman papers were forced to relocate to the Memorial Building in Independence, MO.

Archivist Philip D. Lagerquist recalled, “It wasn’t really a satisfactory place, because rooms were lined with wood, and we were right next to the furnace room.”

Nearly two years after their first move from Washington, DC, Truman’s Presidential papers still had no home.

Photograph of Harry S. Truman Library, ca. 1960 (National Archives Identifier 12170023)

Photograph of Harry S. Truman Library, ca. 1960 (National Archives Identifier 12170023)

Between April 22 and 24, 1957, after almost two and half years in the Memorial Building, the majority of Truman’s papers were moved into the new Truman Library. While the museum opened to the public on September 15, 1957, Truman’s Presidential papers could not be accessed until May 11, 1959—six years and four months after their original move.

Still, though many of the White House files were transferred to the National Archives for public use, documents that Truman regarded as his personal papers remained under his control until his death.

Although Truman may have been active in the progress of the library—providing tours and working with students—by keeping many of his office’s most significant documents closed to the public, he ensured that the institution’s focus was not on him but rather the historical atmosphere during his Presidency.

Photograph of Truman with a School Group at the Harry S. Truman Library, 2/27/1962. (Harry S. Truman Library)

Photograph of Truman with a School Group at the Harry S. Truman Library, 2/27/1962. (Harry S. Truman Library)

Following President Truman’s death in 1972, Benedict K. Zobrist, newly appointed Director of the Harry S. Truman Library, worked to maintain good relations with the Truman family and to accession and process any materials not originally donated to the library.

Raymond Geselbracht, former special assistant to the director of the Harry S. Truman Library, wrote that the first director of the library “thought the papers that Truman kept in his office suite were probably not very important and would disappoint historians when they were opened for research. This proved wrong.”

Within Truman’s office files were significant papers on policy, particularly foreign policy, and even many personal writings.

Photograph of Bess Wallace Truman, Eleanor Roosevelt, Earl Warren, Herbert Hoover, Basil O’Connor and Harry S. Truman at the Dedication of the Harry S. Truman Library, 7/6/1957. (Harry S. Truman Library)

Photograph of Bess Wallace Truman, Eleanor Roosevelt, Earl Warren, Herbert Hoover, Basil O’Connor, and Harry S. Truman at the Dedication of the Harry S. Truman Library, 7/6/1957. (Harry S. Truman Library)

Soon, the research room in Independence was bustling with researchers.

Upon Mrs. Truman’s death in 1982, the library inherited yet another round of invaluable materials.

Now, the National Archives not only possessed documents from his early life, but also 1,300 letter exchanges between the former President and First Lady, found in the Truman home at 219 North Delaware Street in Independence.

Geselbracht concludes, “Truman’s life passed suddenly from being one of the most poorly documented among Presidents to one of the best documented.”

Nearly 30 years after President Truman’s papers were first moved in 1952, the collection, now including his personal and private papers, was now complete.

To learn more about President Truman and his papers, plan your visit to the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence, MO.

And for more information about President Harry S. Truman, visit the library’s website and explore the numerous online resources.

The Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum dedication, July 6, 1957.

The Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum dedication, July 6, 1957.

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