What To Expect From Presidential Library in Chicago

Update: The Barack Obama Foundation announced the presidential library will be built on Chicago's South Side.

After months of speculation, the announcement of where the Barack Obama Presidential Library will be built is expected on Tuesday. But just how much to expect from the library is open to debate, and what the city hopes and promises may not be the reality.

"It takes on average four years for the museum to open once a president leaves office," author Anthony Clark said. "In pushing Chicago’s bid to place the Obama Library in either Washington or Jackson Park, Mayor Emanuel said it would provide an economic spark to a neighborhood in need of jobs."

Clark warns history shows that is unlikely.

“Economic benefits don’t really accrue to presidential libraries," he said. "Only one, the Bill Clinton [library] has been able to show a positive economic gain after the library was created. If the city wants to have the feather in the cap, wants to have the pride of place to have the Obama Library, that’s great, but don’t expect it to be a job revenue, creator.”

The idea of presidential libraries goes back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who wanted to preserve his presidential papers. From Harry Truman to present, the libraries have become a major part of a president’s post-White House years.

Today there are 13 libraries attracting just over 2 million visitors a year. Chicago estimates 800,000 people will visit the Obama Library.

"Now that’s more visitors than have visited any presidential library in history," Clark said. "And except for one presidential library in one year, none has even come close to 800,000. The highest close to that was about 600,000."

Taxpayers pay $75 million a year for the upkeep of the libraries, which is overseen by the National Archives. Presidents decide what goes in their libraries.

Clark said the National Archives spends more money and resources on helping a president maintain his legacy and promote his image than hiring archivists to process open records.

"For the four most recent presidents, their records won’t be available for over 100 years.”

Which means the libraries can sometimes be less about scholarship and more about show.

“The George H.W. Bush library has square dancing lessons," Clark said. "The Ronald Reagan Library had an exhibit recently. It was called Treasures of the Disney Vaults, and it was 12,000 square feet of Walt Disney treasurers.”

As for Barack Obama, his final run for office was in 2012, but as Clark notes in his aptly titled book, "The Last Campaign," he has much more work ahead.
“A president has to raise several hundred thousand dollars a day between now and the time he leaves office in order to raise enough money to open a presidential library.”

And that campaign has just begun.

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