The presidential center will include a museum, forum building, public plaza, athletic center, play area and a branch of the Chicago Public Library.
Despite all the controversy, the launch of the library should be celebrated, as the center continues to represent an important element of our civic culture.
Over time, the system was adjusted but the basics remained the same; The National Archives and Records Administration has traditionally operated the facilities. In response to Richard Nixon’s efforts to destroy the White House tapes, Congress passed the Presidential Records Act of 1978, which deemed presidential records to be government property. This meant that the National Archives are responsible for the material once a president leaves office.
Most important, they are the home of the archival materials that we depend on to write the history of a presidential term. Understanding our political evolution – even though we will perpetually dispute how to interpret the past — is integral to the health of our educational culture.
As we now live in an era of disinformation, archivally fact-based interpretations of presidents are the best way for us to evaluate the dynamics of our democracy. Without the material deposited in these buildings, historians would not be able to accomplish this task.
At a time when many Americans constantly disparage our elected officials, having buildings filled with presidential memorabilia and educational programs is more vital than ever — it is a celebration of politics. And to have places like presidential libraries in cities — such as Chicago — where tourists can make politics part of their day and teachers can bring students to discover more about democracy is exactly what we need.
The fundraising for these libraries has also turned into yet another unseemly reflection of the nexus between money and politics. Indeed, presidents start the fundraising process for these institutions while they are still in office, and there have been countless stories about how influential figures, seeking favor with a departing president, pour huge amounts of money into the construction of the building.
But the problems should not undermine our appreciation for why these institutions matter. Tuesday’s groundbreaking should be a reminder of how we must continue to encourage the study of our democratic history — without limitations and without restrictions — and to continually interpret and reinterpret how we have reached our current state of affairs.
All of this starts with the displays and the archival records that are the basis for the conversation. Without that, we will continue to descend into a social media universe of disinformation and polemics that perpetually impoverishes our understanding of our past.