Scott Brinton

Why libraries still really do matter


President Obama was officially sworn in for his second term on Sunday, and the inauguration festivities got under way early on Monday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The inauguration was a fitting tribute to a nation that has in many ways risen above the racial prejudice that has plagued the U.S. since its founding.

For all the talk on the networks about the higher meaning of the moment, speculation quickly turned over the weekend to the next presidential election in 2016. That is, will Hillary run?

There was also plenty of talk about Obama’s inaugural address. Surely, the political pundits asserted, the president would employ soaring rhetoric to cement his place in history, not only as the nation’s first African-American president, but also as one of its truly great leaders.

And, yes, presidents help secure their places in history with memorable sound bites. Think of Franklin Roosevelt’s “date which will live in infamy” speech, delivered the day after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor; or Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook” declaration, offered during a question-and-answer session with wire-service editors on Nov. 18, 1973, in the midst of the Watergate scandal; or Ronald Reagan’s “tear down this wall” speech, challenging Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev on June 12, 1987, to destroy the infamous Berlin Wall.

Rhetoric helps. Libraries are better.

Presidential libraries –– funded by private and public dollars –– are the go-to repositories of presidential documents, which will serve as the true basis for historical research long after all of us are gone. There are 13 of them, administered by the Office of Presidential Libraries, which is part of the National Archives and Records Administration. They date back to the presidency of Herbert Hoover. George W. Bush was the most recent president to have a library built in his name. There are other libraries dedicated to presidents that are run by historical societies or state governments, such as the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, administered by the state of Illinois, but they are outside the NARA system.

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