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Presidential Records as Personal Property

Oct 06, 2018

As our summer interns complete their season, they reflect on what they learned. Gina Risetter, who works at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, considers how different presidential papers are treated.

Being an intern for the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University has been a truly rewarding experience. It has been a great change of pace from working at a presidential library that is administered by the Presidential Records Act of 1978. The Act strictly regulates what happens to presidential records once the President and Vice President leave office. While many can rest easy that there is a system in place to preserve and provide access to presidential records for modern presidential administrations, I am grateful I learned about the Theodore Roosevelt Center and its efforts to create access to records from Theodore Roosevelt’s career. In many ways, not existing under the careful watch of the Presidential Records Act allows the staff here more freedom to digitize records and cultivate collections not just created by Theodore Roosevelt, but about Theodore Roosevelt as well. The legacy of Theodore Roosevelt is as much a topic of study as is what he did when he was alive. Presidential Record Act libraries are more tightly bound by what was created by an individual while he/she was president. Working for an organization not so tightly bound to a specific time frame was different in and of itself.

Another refreshing aspect of working with Roosevelt records has been working with a President who did not play such a heavy hand in the creation of his legacy. I have often thought about where earlier Presidents deposited their personal papers after they left office. Prior to the Presidential Records Act, presidential records were considered the private property of the President. Presidential libraries became a regular routine after Franklin D. Roosevelt, with those collections deeded to the National Archives, and it was up to the discretion of the President what was donated and what was kept for his own personal use. But for administrations prior to Herbert Hoover, the President truly decided the fate of his presidential records. Some, like Calvin Coolidge, destroyed most of their personal collections. Others, like Rutherford B. Hayes, had their archival collections precisely maintained and organized. One of the downfalls of the Presidential Records Act is that now presidents are all too aware that the masses will be poring over their records, judging them. What made working with the Theodore Roosevelt records much more interesting was seeing the records of a President who was not so acutely aware that something like the Theodore Roosevelt Center would be established to promote access to his collections. While Theodore Roosevelt and his family began making donations to the Library of Congress before he passed away, the creation of his records wasn’t necessarily framed by the knowledge that the records themselves would have historical value.

Overall, I think working here has been an invaluable experience. Outside of the fact that Theodore Roosevelt was a historic titan of his time, the situations surrounding the thousands of documents he left behind was exhilarating for any history buff. I am grateful for the opportunity I was given and will look back on it fondly.

Posted by Gina Risetter on Oct 06, 2018 in History  |  Permalink  |  Comments (0)  |  Share this post

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