Landing the Obama library

Pictured above is a view from the current location of Dyett High School, 555 E. 51st St., south through Washington Park. The school is being phased out and will be closed shortly. Would a site in Washington Park like this have the grandeur needed for the Barack Obama Presidential Library? -Marc Monaghan
Pictured above is a view from the current location of Dyett High School, 555 E. 51st St., south through Washington Park. The school is being phased out and will be closed shortly. Would a site in Washington Park like this have the grandeur needed for the Barack Obama Presidential Library?

-Marc Monaghan

Long before anyone else but the president was thinking about it, we at the Herald began wondering about the presidential library: How would we ensure it came to the South Side of Chicago? Where would it be built? We shared our questions with our readers and you kindly joined in on the speculation.

Well, we are returning once again to our old obsession, but now we have quite a bit of company. Everybody from Marty Nesbitt to former Herald columnist David Axelrod seems to be trying to help their old friend Barack Obama find a suitable spot for an institution that will anchor his legacy.

We think that bringing it here will require just the right location, one that shows off all of the wonderful qualities of our part of the city and the region. But where is that location? The University of Chicago campus? Jackson or Washington parks? Woodlawn?

To set the stage, we begin this week by examining the presidential libraries that have come before, so that we might understand what is required of a space that will house a presidential library.

Staff Writer

Earlier this year Barack Obama announced that Hyde Parker Marty Nesbitt would lead the charge to find a location for the presidential library. Shortly thereafter, Hyde Park individuals — and one notable institution — mobilized to secure that library for the South Side of Chicago.

The University of Chicago has been lobbying quietly to bring the library to campus. The library would house documents and artifacts from Obama’s time in office. The former Michael Reese Hospital site, the University of Illinois at Chicago campus and the former U.S. Steel factory site have all been suggested for the museum and library.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has said he wants Chicago to submit one unified bid and worry about real estate later. Recently, an Illinois House committee passed a resolution that would allocate $100 million for the construction of the library if Obama picks the state.

Hawaii, which has set aside a seaside location for the library, and Columbia University in New York City are also expected to bid for the site.

Hyde Parkers like to speculate about locations where Obama might build a library once he is a private citizen again in 2016. Popular theories include the former location of Ronald Reagan’s home at 832 E. 57th St., or on the University of Chicago’s campus.


Chicagoans have openly assumed that Obama will locate his library within the city since 2008. Hyde Parkers have, amongst themselves, bet on potential locations between themselves in conversation.

Currently there are 14 presidential libraries that operate under the National Archives. No president is required to open a library, but each modern president has done so as a way to preserve his legacy, house the documents and artifacts from his time in office or to continue his work after leaving the White House.

In 1955, Congress passed the Presidential Libraries Act, encouraging presidents to donate the documents and materials from their terms to the government after their time in office is complete. This ensures that documents used by a president are preserved for posterity and available to researchers.

Franklin D. Roosevelt established the first presidential library in the National Archives system in 1939. He donated his personal and presidential papers to the federal government and a portion of his Hyde Park, N. Y. estate to the United States. He formed a non-profit corporation that then raised money to construct a library and museum.

Susan Donies is the director of the Presidential Libraries of the National Archives and has overseen the opening and creation of some of the more recent ones. Obama’s library will work with Donies’ office to create one that meets the National Archives’ specifications regarding standards for document preservation, research capabilities, collections management, security and accessibility. The rest, ultimately, is up to the president.

The president may select a site where the library would be situated, or he may designate a geographic area. Presidential libraries can occupy a site as large as Reagan’s 29-acre library and burial site in Simi Valley, Calif., or as small as Herbert Hoover’s library in West Branch, Iowa, which sits on 1.5 acres.

“Individuals make proposals and the president, or his team, they review and make a determination on the proposal that best meets their needs,” Donies said.

Meanwhile Obama has begun the process to establish his foundation. That organization, headed by Nesbitt, who served as Obama’s treasurer on the campaign trail will raise hundreds of millions of dollars from private and nonfederal public funds to construct the building.

Chicago real estate executive Robbin Cohen has been named acting executive director of the foundation.

Libraries are typically new construction and the foundation establishes a trust fund that will to offset the cost of the library’s operation and maintenance.

“At the time the building is dedicated, it is given to the National Archives,” Donies said. Once the library is opened and dedicated, typically it is endowed to the National Archives. The archives then use the trust fund and endowment to help offset the cost of operating and maintaining the library.

Many presidential libraries, including the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library in Museum, in Austin, Tex., operate in conjunction with a nearby university, in this case the University of Texas at Austin. However, it is not a requirement, Donies said, to have an established relationship with an institute of higher education.

“There’s no requirement,” Donies said. “Obviously several of our libraries do have relationships with a university because it allows for access to an academic and research community and we obviously have marquis level programming, speakers and other high-profile events that provide value to the community and allow for other partnerships and the schools’ various programs. But it’s not a requirement.
That’s really up to the president and his foundation to determine the relationship with the site that’s chosen.”

The William J. Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock, Ark. does not operate with a university. It was, however, built on 10 acres in an underdeveloped part of the city’s downtown area.

“The library and museum there has been the catalyst of an entire rejuvenation of the Little Rock area,” Donies said. The library opened in 2004.

“So it’s been almost 10 years. It really revitalized the city in the downtown area.” Because presidential libraries tend to attract tourists, businesses popped up nearby and have flourished since the library opened.

“The main thing,” Donies said, is that “the president has not made a decision and until he does we don’t know where the library will be.”