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  • Shannon Honl

A Precedent for Presidents

While managing the digital experience initiatives for the National Eisenhower Memorial, I was introduced to presidential libraries. Working closely with the Eisenhower Library and its non-profit partner, the Eisenhower Foundation, in Abilene, Kansas, I became fascinated with these cultural institutions. While respected by scholars and researchers as invaluable repositories of presidential records, they are also curious centers of public history. Ironically, the assessment of these institutions is almost entirely overlooked in historical scholarship. [1]

Recently I was tasked with researching reviews of digital history projects as part of a Digital Humanities course. My curiosity about these institutions led me to Dr. Barry Trachtenberg’s 2016 assessment of FRANKLIN. But before we get to the substance of Trachtenberg’s analysis, allow me to indulge you in a bit of back-story.

Once upon a time… presidential papers were considered personal property of the presidents. They were passed down through inheritance, loaned to biographers where they were never to be seen again, given away as souvenirs, or forgotten in attics for generations. Sadly, many records of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century presidents have been lost, sold, destroyed by fire or war, nibbled by vermin, or even burned at the hands of presidents themselves.

It was not until the early 20th century that attempts were made to mitigate the situation. The federal government began locating, purchasing, and consolidating any remaining papers – first within the Department of State and later within the Library of Congress’s Manuscript Division. While an alleviating effort in hindsight, no one proffered a permanent solution until 1938. Amid the Great Depression and war raging in Europe, President Franklin Roosevelt (FDR) proposed a “new deal” for presidential papers. With private funds, he built a library. He then donated it, the land it sits on, and his entire collection of documents to the federal government. This developed the precedent that every subsequent president, except Obama, followed.

Eleanor Roosevelt with Harry Truman and Sam Rayburn at the Harry S.Truman Library dedication reception at the Muhlbach in Independence, Missouri, July 5, 1957, courtesy of FRANKLIN

The FDR library became the template for the private-public partnership of these institutions. Operating on a unique and sometimes contentious collaboration between private foundations and the federal government – a “marriage of convenience” – their goals and interests may not always align. Foundations representing the voice of the president’s closest advisors, confidants, and friends tend to embellish the accomplishments, diminish the failures, and tell the one-man-show story. These institutions offer valuable case studies on transparency, shared authority, and civic performance for public historians. But I digress! [2]

Building upon FDR’s model and mission, the FDR Library, Roosevelt Institute, and Marist College developed a digital project called FRANKLIN. Launched in 2013, FRANKLIN is “a virtual research room and digital repository that provides free and open access to the digitized collections of the Roosevelt Library – to everyone, anywhere in the world.” The FDR Library has amassed a collection of approximately 17 million pages. Upon FRANKLIN’s debut, the online archive featured 2,000 photographs and 350,000 documents with the intent to expand. [3]

Dr. Barry Trachtenberg

In October 2015, Trachtenberg reviewed the FRANKLIN project in the Journal of American History. Trachtenberg, an historian of modern Jewish History focused on Yiddish culture and the Nazi Holocaust, was particularly interested in this project for its collection of Holocaust documents. According to the review, the digitized collection had increased to 2,500 photographs and 800,000 documents – still less than 5% of the library’s total collection. In concluding remarks, he conveyed hopeful optimism that “if FRANKLIN continues to expand its collection as promised, this limited but helpful resource will become increasingly valuable to researchers.” Based on my own exploration of the project, it appears not much has happened since Trachtenberg’s assessment seven years ago. Sadly, this seems to underscore Rosenzweig’s point about digital projects' fleeting shelf life: “digital documents last forever – or five years, whichever comes first.” [4]


[1] While scholars have published many journal articles on the topic, historian Benjamin Hufbauer’s 2005 book, Presidential Temples: How Memorials and Libraries Shape Public Memory, is the only scholarly monograph devoted to analyzing these intuitions.

[2] Jodi Kanter, Presidential Libraries as Performance: Curating American Character from Herbert Hoover to George W. Bush (SIU Press, 2016), 31.

[3] FDR Library, “FRANKLIN IS HERE!!!!!,” Forward with Roosevelt (blog), December 4, 2013,

[4] Barry Trachtenberg, ed., “Franklin,” Journal of American History 103, no. 1 (June 1, 2016): 299,; Roy Rosenzweig, “Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era,” The American Historical Review 108, no. 3 (2003): 735–62,

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