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When President Franklin D. Roosevelt was in the midst of his second term in 1939, he donated both his personal and presidential papers to the federal government, believing that the documents were an essential part of the country’s history and should be accessible to the public. The National Archives took custody of the materials and dedicated the first presidential library in 1941.
Since then, there have been several acts of Congress — in 1955, 1978, and 1986 — establishing a system of privately built but federally maintained presidential libraries, which are managed by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). Currently, there are 14 presidential libraries — one for every U.S. President from Herbert Hoover through Barack Obama, although Obama’s can’t be physically visited since it is the first fully digital presidential library. (The Obama Presidential Center under construction in Chicago won’t house any of his official records.) Former presidents such as Abraham Lincoln and Calvin Coolidge also have their own libraries, but they’re run outside of the NARA system.
While the libraries offer resources for researchers, each facility also has a museum portion that provides an inside look into the presidencies. Here's where history buffs can visit the 13 libraries across the country. (Note: Please check individual libraries for current opening statuses and safety measures; some may be temporarily closed due to the pandemic.)
Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum (West Branch, Iowa)
On August 10, 1962, a crowd of 45,000 people gathered in a small Iowa town with a population of just 1,050 residents. The reason? To welcome home West Branch’s own Herbert Hoover on his 88th birthday — and to celebrate the opening of his library, the fourth in the system. Former President Harry Truman spoke at the ceremony, since Hoover had spoken at the dedication of Truman’s own library a few years earlier. Truman called Hoover “a great American” who had public service dedication “unequaled in the history of the country.”
Located on the grounds of the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site, the permanent galleries trace Hoover's history from his birth to his career as an engineer, to his time as the Secretary of Commerce before becoming the 31st President. The rotunda features a 16-foot granite world map with brass sheaves of wheat featured on each of the 57 nations where the “Great Humanitarian” helped feed people through hunger relief efforts.
Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum (Hyde Park, New York)
Built on FDR’s family’s property in Hyde Park, the first presidential library opened on June 30, 1941, with a hodgepodge collection of his model ships, a basement of stagecoaches, and a room of gifts given to the 32nd President and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. FDR had planned to sort through the papers and other artifacts after he left office, but he died during his fourth term in 1945. A committee sorted through the materials, and the library became accessible to the public in 1950.
Nowadays, self-guided tours to the library are offered as a joint ticket with Roosevelt’s home, which is operated by the National Park Service. After a rededication in 2013, new permanent exhibits debuted, including two immersive Fireside Chat environments, complete with a radio from the time period; a 500-square-foot Map Room with projections to follow the maps as FDR did; and a touch-screen Oval Office desk.
Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum (Independence, Missouri)
More than 13,000 researchers — hailing from more than 40 countries and almost every U.S. state — have used the resources at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum since 1959. Not only is it located in the 33rd President’s hometown, but the library and museum is also the final resting place of Truman, his wife Bess Truman, their daughter Margaret Truman Daniel, and her husband Clifton Daniel. Among the 32,000 objects in the museum’s collection are a painting by Missouri artist Thomas Hart Benton titled Independence and the Opening of the West and a recreation of the Oval Office during Truman’s term. After opening its doors in 1957, the museum closed for renovation in July 2019 — the first major upgrade since its opening — and is scheduled to reopen in 2021.
Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum (Abilene, Kansas)
"The proudest thing I can claim is that I am from Abilene,” Dwight D. Eisenhower said during his homecoming in 1945. And Abilene is just as proud of the 34th President, with an entire campus consisting of a visitors center, his boyhood home, a statue, pylon plaques, and a place of meditation where he’s buried. That’s in addition to the separate library and museum buildings in the small Kansas city.
The vast space is complemented by the depth of resources: 26 million pages of historical records and papers, 335,000 photographs, 768,000 feet of original film, and 70,000 artifacts.
John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum (Boston)
Perhaps the most high-profile of all the presidential libraries, the 164,000-square-foot John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum was designed by I.M. Pei and sits on the Boston waterfront, adjacent to the University of Massachusetts at Boston. The striking nine-floor structure with a glass roof pavilion was dedicated on October 20, 1979. As then-President Jimmy Carter said, “Like a great cathedral, this building was a long time coming. But it more than justifies the wait. Its grace and its dignity are, I hope and believe, worthy of the man whose memory it will nurture.”
Exhibits include Young Jack, revealing the early days of the “underachiever with a rebel streak”; the Peace Corps, highlighting the program he started and championed; and Lift Off!, which documents the space program’s race to land on the moon. Also in the collection are items from Jacqueline Kennedy’s wardrobe and a peach pit portrait of JFK.
Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library and Museum (Austin, Texas)
As the first of three presidential libraries in Texas, the 30-acre Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library and Museum proves they indeed do things bigger in Texas. Located on the University of Texas at Austin in a 10-story building by architect Gordon Bunshaft, the landmark opens with a dramatic Great Hall and a four-story view of the archives. The entrance also features a photo-engraving mural wall depicting Johnson’s time in Washington.
Among the museum’s highlights are audio recordings of historic White House telephone calls, interactive displays of the decisions made during the Vietnam War, and a look at Lady Bird Johnson’s office. In addition, the library holds 45 million pages of documents, plus 650,000 photos, 5,000 hours of records, and 55,000 artifacts.
Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum (Yorba Linda, California)
Visiting the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum is like taking a virtual journey through his life — the library is set on nine acres in the 37th President’s Southern California hometown. The experience kicks off with a 13-minute orientation film before continuing through 22 multimedia spaces, starting with the lead-up to the 1968 election and through Nixon’s resignation, then circling back to his younger days before the White House was in sight. The museum’s virtual journey — which includes 70 family-friendly exhibits and 8,000 square feet of wall murals — finally concludes with a look at his legacy and an epilogue film.
Also on the site are the Pat Nixon Gardens, which include the final resting place for both the President and the First Lady, as well as a Sikorsky VH 3A “Sea King” presidential helicopter.
Gerald Ford Presidential Library (Ann Arbor, Michigan)
Unlike the other 12 sites where the libraries and museums are united, the Gerald Ford President Library is located in Ann Arbor, approximately 130 miles east of his museum in Grand Rapids. At the 50,000-square-foot library, which opened in 1981, the focus is on the archival materials acquired during the 38th President's administration from 1974 to 1977, along with a permanent timeline that follows the entirety of his life through documents and photos.
Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum (Atlanta)
Though Jimmy Carter spent his boyhood in Plains, Georgia, where the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site is located, his library sits on 30 acres in Atlanta that were originally acquired by the state to build an interstate highway. Sandwiched on park land between two lakes and within view of the city skyline, the $26 million complex was finished in 1986 and now holds 40 million pages of documents, 1 million photos, 2.2 million feet of film, and 2,500 hours of video.
Standout exhibits include the walk-through cabin of Camp David meetings, an interactive map table of the Carters’ journeys, and a film that takes you through a day in the life of the 39th President.
Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum (Simi Valley, California)
The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, about 40 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles, feels simultaneously showy and commanding — apt for a man who conquered both Hollywood and politics. Where else can you step into the exact Air Force One plane that transported the 40th President more than 660,000 miles to 26 countries and 46 states? Also on display is a colorful section of the Berlin Wall, an F-117 Nighthawk Stealth Fighter, and a Secret Service exhibit.
The museum’s permanent collection features interactive exhibits that allow visitors to act in a movie with Reagan, deliver his inaugural address on the U.S. Capitol steps, set the table for a state dinner, and ride a horse alongside him at Rancho del Cielo. But perhaps the most intimate experience is getting an up-close look at his hologram.
George H.W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum (College Station, Texas)
George H.W. Bush was a native of Massachusetts and a graduate of Yale, yet his presidential library stands proudly on the campus of Texas A&M University in College Station. He simply had a fondness for the school, located in his adopted home state, and once even declared, “I’m proud to be an Aggie.”
While the museum follows the elder President Bush’s legacy, it also covers much of U.S. history from 1941 on, and includes a World War II Avenger Torpedo Bomber and 1947 Studebaker on display. Also on-site are replicas of the 41st President’s Camp David and Situation Room, as well as interactive experiences that challenge visitors to land an aircraft carrier or strike a pose in the Oval Office.
William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum (Little Rock, Arkansas)
Few cities are as synonymous with a President as Little Rock is. After you fly into the Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport, you can drive along President Clinton Avenue to the Clinton Presidential Center and Park in the River Market District, where the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service, Clinton Foundation offices, and Clinton Presidential Library and Museum are all located.
The 20,000-square-foot library documents American history at the turn of the 21st century with 13 alcoves highlighting policies and a 110-foot timeline of the 42nd President’s administration. Also featured are replicas of the Cabinet Room and Oval Office and an exhibit on what it was like to live in the White House.
George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum (Dallas)
As this is the most recent physical museum in the NARA system, a conscious effort was made to ensure that the 14,000-square-foot exhibition space wasn’t just a chronological tracing of the 43rd President’s life, but rather a focus on the ideas of “freedom, responsibility, opportunity, and compassion [that] were put into practice by President and Mrs. Bush.”
In a true sign of the times, the archives’ weight is measured in bits and bytes, with 200 million email messages and 80 terabytes of electronic records, along with 70 million pages of text, 3.8 million photos, and 227 cubic feet of photo negatives. The building sits next to a 15-acre prairie-inspired Native Texas Park featuring a mile-long network of trails.