Presidential Libraries Bring US History to Life

October 26, 2020 Updated: October 28, 2020

Sightseers near Boston enjoy a leisurely stroll through a magnificent 18th-century garden. A man in Texas plays president as he reads a speech from a teleprompter. Children in California take a pretend horseback ride with Ronald Reagan. These disparate experiences have one thing in common: They’re taking place at presidential libraries, repositories of manuscripts, memorabilia, and memories that keep stories of American presidents alive.

Visitors read important documents, view artifacts, and learn about the public and private lives of men who have filled the highest office in the country. They may relive the pomp and pageantry of the presidency and enjoy behind-the-scenes introductions to those who have been elected to the position. At this time a number of the libraries are closed to visitors. However, their websites offer virtual tours that provide insight to their many attractions.

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An exact replica of Ronald Regan’s White House Oval Office in Simi Valley, Calif. (trekandshoot/Shutterstock)

The idea for presidential libraries came from Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who in 1939 donated his papers, along with part of his Hyde Park, New York, estate to the federal government. His library traces his presidency from the Great Depression through the New Deal and World War II. Visitors see his Oval Office desk, listen to the famous radio “Fireside Chats” and view a mock-up of the White House Map Room, where Roosevelt and his military advisers planned key battles during World War II.    

Books, clothing, surveying equipment, and other belongings of George Washington are stored at his Mount Vernon, Virginia, estate. In keeping with the goal of the collections to personalize presidents, the dentures that he wore also are on display.

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The Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum. (Michael Gordon/Shutterstock)

Two other early presidents are represented at the Adams National Historic Park in Quincy, Massachusetts. Among structures that share the 13-acre campus are the birthplaces of John Adams, the second president, and his son, John Quincy Adams, the sixth president, along with the Old House, where four generations of the family lived, and the Stone Library. Items in that building include John Adams’ copy of Washington’s Farewell Address and a Bible presented to John Quincy by slaves who mutinied and whom he successfully defended in court. Flower gardens and orchards that share the historic landscape add to the feeling of being transported back to when the Adams family lived there.

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The birthplace of John Adams, now part of the Adams National Historic Park in Quincy, Mass. (Daniel M. Silva/Shutterstock)

Another father-son duo is introduced at the George H.W. and George W. Bush libraries. Visitors to the Bush ’41 collection on the campus of Texas A&M University may step into the role of president and read a speech from a teleprompter. A mural transports viewers to the White House dining room during a state dinner, and a display of spy equipment used by CIA agents serve as a reminder that Bush was director of that bureau before becoming president.

Exhibits at the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas depict life in the White House, including presidential pets. The attacks of Sept. 1, 2001, receive full attention, including artifacts from Ground Zero and the bullhorn that Bush used to address the crowd that assembled at the site.

Another tragedy is recounted at the John F. Kennedy Library, but his assassination is only part of the story told there. More than 20,000 artifacts range from JFK’s collection of ship models to Jackie Kennedy’s trend-setting clothing.  Exhibits also cover the space program, the fight for civil rights, and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

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George Washington’s home in northern Virginia, Mount Vernon. (Bob Pool/Shutterstock)

A gallery at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas, is devoted to the advances Kennedy’s successor brought to civil rights. Others highlight his involvement in the Vietnam War and Kennedy’s assassination. An animatronic Johnson tells the jokes for which he was famous.   

Abraham Lincoln lived long before the advent of today’s electronic breakthroughs, but that didn’t prevent planners of his library from taking advantage of them. Among attractions at the Lincoln Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois, are elaborate dioramas and multimedia exhibits. They share space with reproductions of Honest Abe’s boyhood home and the Ford Theatre where he was assassinated.

In addition to the library, buildings at the Clinton Presidential Center include the Clinton Foundation office and Clinton School of Public Service. Exhibits vary from some of the interesting gifts given to the president to a replica of the White House Conference Room. Built on the bank of the Arkansas River, the building was designed by architects James Polshek and Richard Olcott to represent Clinton’s ideal of a “bridge to tomorrow.”

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Peacefield, the home of John and Abigail Adams, at Adams National Historical Park in Quincy, Mass. (Joseph Sohm/Shutterstock)

It’s not surprising that an actor who went on to lead the country is recalled in dramatic ways. The Ronald Reagan Library near Los Angeles is the largest of all the presidential libraries. Among its displays is Air Force One, in which Reagan and other presidents flew, and a mock presidential motorcade. Visitors may “act” in a movie alongside “the Gipper” (his nickname from a part he once played) and ride a virtual horse on Reagan’s ranch.

If riding a pretend horse or checking out the Oval Office doesn’t appeal to you, perhaps strolling through gardens where presidents once walked will. Visits—real or virtual—to presidential libraries bring to life memorable chapters of history and provide introductions to the men who have held the highest office in the land.

When You Go

Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum: FDRLibrary.org

George Washington’s Mount Vernon: MountVernon.org/library

Adams National Historical Park: NPS.gov/adam

George H.W. Library Center: Bush41.org

George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum: GeorgeWBushLibrary.smu.edu

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum: JFKLibrary.org

LBJ Presidential Library: LBJLibrary.org

Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum: Illinois.gov/alplm

William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum: ClintonLibrary.gov

Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum: ReaganLibrary.gov   

Victor Block is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at Creators.com. Copyright 2020 Creators.com