We’re wrapping up our American Archives Month 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.
At the groundbreaking ceremony for the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, held on November 21, 1988, President Reagan proclaimed, “But I believe that scholars of good will . . . will judge our efforts well. But as for us, at present we can only say this: we have done our best and we pray it has been enough.”
At its conception, the future Reagan Library was faced with three major questions:
Where would the library be located?
How would this new institution cope with being the first to adhere to the rules of the Presidential Libraries Act of 1978?
And how would the director and staff manage the papers and gifts of a modern Presidency that lasted two full terms (the first since 1961)?
Just as the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library had settled at the University of Texas at Austin and the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library partnered with the University of Michigan, by 1984 the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation reached an agreement with Stanford University.
While the Foundation and Stanford continued to plan the location of the National Archives’ 10th Presidential institution at Stanford University, by the spring of 1987 the project came to a screeching halt.
Due to growing pressures between the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation, whose trustees wanted a public affairs center at the university, and the student and faculty’s resistance to the idea that this addition might limit the university’s independence, the foundation withdrew from the project.
With less than two years left before the end of President Reagan’s second term, the foundation scrambled to secure another location, surveying multiple sites around California.
By November 1987, the Presidential materials once again had a future home, but this time in Simi Valley, California. The President and First Lady selected a site that was surrounded by mountains and had a spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean. Developers donated 100 acres for the project, and one year later construction on the library began.
With a new site confirmed, the next step was to secure a director. This director would carry the unprecedented responsibility of managing materials under the Presidential Libraries Act of 1978. Former University of Southern Californian Administrator and former White House Official Ralph C. Bledsoe stepped up to the task.
In 1991, staff writer for the LA Times Kenneth R. Weiss wrote, “It promises to be a thorny, if not thankless job.” Within months of his appointment, Bledsoe had already received multiple subpoenas and requests by the public regarding access to materials.
One year after the Reagan Library’s dedication, 6.7 million Presidential pages were made available under Bledsoe’s supervision.
While the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library worked to meet the demand of the Presidential Libraries Act of 1978, they also tirelessly confronted the struggle of processing too many documents with too few employees.
Since President Dwight Eisenhower left office in 1961, Ronald Reagan was the first President to serve a full two-term, eight-year Presidency. This fact, accompanied by the new age of electronic records and the documentation of a modern Presidency, meant the library inherited an extraordinary amount of materials.
The library took on the task of absorbing what today is over 60 million pages of documents, over 1.6 million photographs, a half million feet of motion picture film, tens of thousands of audio and video tape, and over 40,000 artifacts.
In his 2011 testimony to Congress, Duke Blackwood, current Director the Reagan Library, revealed that the library processes more than 1.5 million documents each year.
While the library has made substantial progress in its archival process, problems persisted. For instance, in 2007, library officials came under fire when they revealed that they struggled to accurately catalog artifacts. Blackwood explained that many of these problems stemmed from the complicated transfer of materials from the White House staff to the archivists at the library.
There’s no missing one particular object, however. On September 8, 2001, President Reagan’s dream of retiring Air Force One at the library came true. Four years later, the plane was open for visitors to explore.
Although the Reagan Library encountered both triumphs and setbacks, it paved the way for processing Presidential papers in the modern era.
To learn more about President Reagan, plan your visit to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, California.
And for further information about President Reagan, visit the library’s website and explore the online resources.