Last spring, I visited the Library of Congress for the very first time. As an aspiring librarian and unabashed lover of North American history, this was heaven. One of my favorite exhibits was Thomas Jefferson's Library, which is a reconstruction of the 6,487 books Congress purchased from Jefferson's personal collection to re-establish a national library after the original Congressional Library was burned by the British in 1814. According to the Library of Congress, 2,000 of the works on display are from the original collection.
It. Was. Awesome. National history and presidential perspective at my fingertips. There is much to be said about the potential constraints of a national body of knowledge that, due to its underlying influences and structural evolution, may not be consistently representative of the body politic. Scholars far more knowledgeable than I have examined this well, and the Library of Congress continues to evolve its influence, collections and classification toward inclusion and representation[i]. In honor of President's Day (which is still technically called Washington's Birthday!), my thoughts, too, focus on possibility and progress.
Something that struck me most as I viewed the exhibit was the notion that Jefferson and Congress had no idea what this body of knowledge would eventually become. They could not have fathomed the scope of today's Library of Congress, but they believed in the underlying principles of preservation and education, and they made it happen.
Our nation's system of thirteen Presidential Libraries and Museums embody the same captivating juncture of real-time governance and diplomatic legacy. Begun by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the purpose of Presidential Libraries is to "…promote understanding of the presidency and the American experience. We preserve and provide access to historical materials, support research, and create interactive programs and exhibits that educate and inspire."
I highly recommend a review of the Frequently Asked Questions from the Office of Presidential Libraries within the National Archives and Records Administration to learn more about how these sites are selected, developed and sustained. You can also access and explore websites and other details for each individual Presidential Library here.
When we consider the political, socio-economic and other legacies of our executive leaders, we do so with the benefit and burden of hindsight. They, on the other hand, must constantly consider an invisible horizon. As the Obama Presidential Center takes shape, we the people are privileged to select another leader whose capacity to face that horizon and to influence our future we believe in most.
As public library leaders, we have the added opportunity to support our users in participating in the democratic process, through many forms of civic and community engagement. Our shared belief in preservation, education and engagement will lead our field and our communities to unfathomable futures.
[i] For an excellent examination, read Colin Higgins (2012): Library of Congress Classification: Teddy Roosevelt's World in Numbers?, Cataloging & Classification Quarterly, 50:4, 249-262 http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01639374.2012.658989