Top of the Morning, May 24, 2014

Top of the Morning, May 24, 2014

With the University of Illinois vying for the Barack Obama presidential library, we asked an expert from the nation's No. 1 library school for his take.

Chris Prom is assistant university archivist at the UI's Urbana campus and an expert in preserving digital materials, which now make up the bulk of presidential records. Prom has visited the Herbert Hoover library and museum in Iowa and particularly liked the recreated Oval Office, a staple of presidential libraries.

But as an archivist he'd like to see the two newest (and biggest and most expensive): the $165 million Bill Clinton library in Little Rock, Ark., with its 78 million records; and the $250 million George W. Bush library in Dallas, with 80 terabytes of digital information, including 200 million emails.

"Obviously they represent presidents who are on the opposite ends of the political spectrum. I'm always interested in how the libraries try to shape the legacy of the president," Prom said.

Presidents can restrict access to their records for up to 12 years after leaving office — documents related to appointments, documents classified secret for national security reasons, or anything the president considers to be a confidential communication from his advisers, Prom said. And some documents can be restricted longer.

Few of the Bush materials are available yet, but the Clinton library recently started releasing documents.

Before 1974, presidential records were considered the private property of the president. But after the Watergate scandal Congress mandated that they be preserved as public property.

The National Archives and Records Administration assumes control of the records as soon as the president leaves office.

"They'll back the truck up, they'll load up the records, including the computers, and take them away. And then they're the property of the American people," Prom said. "So 20, 30, 50 years from now, historians can write a history using the materials that literally passed across the president's desk."

What are researchers most anticipating from recent presidents? For Bush, documents from the Gulf War and the invasion of Iraq, Prom said. With Obama, it's likely to be health care reform, his signature legislative achievement.

Prom said Chicago is the perfect choice for the Obama library. Most presidential libraries are located where the former president was active politically before moving into the White House.

"It would be a little bit of an outlier if the Obama library were to end up in Hawaii or New York," he said, where the president grew up and attended college.

"Whether or not you agree with the president's policies," Prom said, "it would be a good thing for the state."

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