SJSU SLIS ALASC’s Tour of the Nixon Presidential Library & Museum

By Alison Leonard

In April, John Jackson, ALA Student Chapter Program Coordinator, organized a tour for San Jose State University’s School of Library and Information Science American Library Association Student Chapter (SJSU SLIS ALASC) of the Nixon Presidential Library & Museum in Yorba Linda, California.

The Nixon Library contains over 50 million documents relating to Nixon’s time in office, consisting of more than 500,000 photographs, 700 hours of film, over 4,000 hours of “off air” video recordings, and 4,469 audio recordings, including the infamous “Nixon White House tapes.” Additional information on the collection is available on the Library’s website.

The tour was led by Dr. Gregory Cumming, Supervisory Archivist for the Nixon Library. Greg has formerly worked in the archives at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Foundation.  The Nixon Library requires that all archivists be experts in certain periods of time in history. Greg’s expertise is in post-World War II American history.  The Library encourages their archivists to develop one-on-one relationships with researchers in order to assist them. Therefore, Greg has formed many professional relationships.

Greg shared with us that there are various differences of opinions regarding Nixon. However, as an archivist, his job, along with his teams, is to process the collection and make it available, not to be political.

Sometimes there are challenges with making certain documents in the collection available. These challenges are usually related to privacy issues or national security concerns. Greg said that many individuals who write to the President like to include their social security number on correspondence. And, surprisingly enough, many individuals will write about their money problems and will include detailed information about their finances. Information about power plants and nuclear sites were pulled from the collection after 9/11 because of national security concerns.

Historians and researchers examine the collection for many reasons aside from Watergate. For example, the library’s collection is informative for researchers studying Vietnam, China, and the Family Assistance Plan. John Dean, former Counsel to Nixon, is a frequent researcher at the Library.

Typically, the Library sees three to four researchers daily. A processing manual was created to develop a policy for users. Items within the archive are described at the folder level. Finding aids are available in hard copy and on the Web. The Library has a room attendant at all times and contains security cameras. Each table contains a power outlet in the center for computers. Some materials are off-site in cold storage. The facility meets state and federal standards for disasters such as fire and earthquake. Almost everything within the collection is in original order. When materials from government agencies are transferred to the library, the staff processes them. The first steps are to remove metal, such as staples and paper clips. The materials are then refolded and re-boxed. They are screened for classified information and searched for social security numbers. After that, they are released to the public.  In addition to the Presidential Papers, the Library also has collections from individual donors, government agencies, and Administration staff.

The Presidential Library system formally began in 1939, when President Franklin Roosevelt donated his personal and Presidential papers to the Federal Government. Roosevelt believed that Presidential papers are part of our national heritage and should be accessible to the public. He asked the National Archives to take custody of his papers and other historical materials and to administer his library. Before the Presidential Library system was formalized, Presidents or their heirs usually dispersed Presidential papers at the end of their administration. Though many pre-Hoover collections now reside in the Library of Congress, others are split among various libraries, historical societies, and private collections.

In 1955, Congress passed the Presidential Library Act which established a system of privately erecting and federally maintaining libraries. The Act encouraged other Presidents to donate their historical materials to the government to ensure their preservation and make them available to the public.  In the case of every Presidential Library, funds from private and nonfederal public sources are used to build the library. Once completed, the private organization turns over the library to the National Archives and Records Administration to operate and maintain it.

The Presidential Records Act of 1978 established that the Presidential records that “document the constitutional, statutory, and ceremonial duties of the President” are the property of the government. After the President leaves office, the Archivist of the United States then assumes custody of the records. The Act allows Presidential libraries to serve as repositories for Presidential records. Therefore, Presidential libraries ultimately are a combination of federal and private partnership. Think of a Presidential Library as having three components: the Foundation, text and audio-visual materials, and a museum.

Federal records are in the public domain. So as an American citizen feel free to explore the Nixon Library.

Alison has a background in fundraising with Haiti Democracy Project, Meridian International Center (a contractor for the U.S. Department of State) and WNVC International Public Television. Alison holds an undergraduate degree in history from Virginia Tech, and a Masters in International Transactions from George Mason University, which included study abroad at Oxford in England. She enjoys swimming laps, biking and hiking. She has visited over 90 national parks in the U.S. She has run into bears on the trail but thankfully no mountain lions.