NARA Issues Presidential Libraries Reform Report to Congress

The National Archives and Records Administration this week submitted a report to Congress detailing alternative models to the current Presidential Library system.

The Presidential Historical Records Preservation Act of 2008 [PL 110-404] had tasked NARA with developing plans to reduce the financial burden of the libraries on the Federal Government, improve the preservation of Presidential records, and reduces delays in public access to Presidential records.

Financial Considerations

NARA presented Congress with five alternatives and the advantages and disadvantages associated with each model. NARA requested input on its web site for suggestions for the development of alternative models for a Presidential Library, and received over 100 comments, including those from the National Coalition for History.

Model 1: The current model (in which both the archival depository and museum are donated to NARA by the Library Foundation), with revisions to the endowment calculation that would require an endowment based on the total size of the building.

Model 2: The Presidential archival depository leased by the Government, with a separate Museum managed by the Foundation.

Model 3: The Presidential archival depository donated to NARA by the Foundation, a university, or other non-Federal entity, with a separate Museum managed by the Foundation.

Model 4: A centralized federally-funded Presidential archival depository (in the Washington, DC metropolitan area) managed by NARA, and former-Presidents may build and manage their own museums in a location of their choice.

Model 5: A centralized Presidential archival depository funded and managed by NARA and a Museum of the Presidency (both in Washington, DC) is built and staffed by NARA. Private funds through a separate Foundation or through other fund-raising would be required to build and sustain the exhibits and the educational and public programs of the Museum.

While NARA did not recommend a preferred model, the report rejected Model 2 as having the highest cost with the lowest benefits.

NARA concluded the only way to reduce costs was to eliminate programs. The most significant cost savings would be achieved through the elimination of the presidential museums, public outreach, and educational programs, with NARA providing Governmental support only for the archival and collections management functions for both archives and artifacts.

Presidential Libraries represent less than 16% of NARA’s budget yet account for 63% of visitors to the National Archives. The report stated the most crucial question which NARA and others must resolve before adopting any changes is what the focus of NARA’s mission for the Presidential Libraries, and the study of the Presidency should be.

Improving Access

The Presidential Records Act (PRA) provides each President the discretion to impose, while in office, six restrictions on access which last up to 12 years after the President leaves office. The PRA does not mandate these restrictions, but they can be narrowed or waived after the President leaves office.

After five years, the Presidential Records Act gives the public the right to access presidential records via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). However, for a variety of reasons, especially a lack of resources, NARA has not been able process the records in a timely manner. Therefore, at the point when Presidential records have become subject to request under FOIA, the vast majority of records have not yet been reviewed and publicly released. For example, at their respective five-year points, the Reagan and Bush Library staff had processed less than five percent of their Presidential records and Clinton less than one percent.

In its original solicitation for public comment NARA had suggested, “Presidential records can be processed more efficiently if they are processed systematically rather than under FOIA during the years in which the Presidential Records Act (PRA) restrictions apply.” NCH and a host of public-interest groups objected to this alternative and it was not presented in the report to Congress.

Instead, NARA believes statutory changes to the PRA would be of some help in limiting the time delay, and the NARA resources, required for providing notice to the former and incumbent Presidents of its intent to open records. NARA recommends a statutory cut-off period for notice which should coincide with the death or disability of the former President or after 25 years, whichever is later.

NARA noted it had implemented a number of changes which have streamlined the way FOIA requests are processed. In addition, in the last year Congress appropriated funding for 15 additional archival positions for the existing Libraries with Presidential records – Reagan, Bush 41, and Clinton. Congress also appropriated funding for 18 archivists to process the George W. Bush and Cheney records. NARA believes these positions, combined with improvements in the way NARA processes Presidential records, should result in the opening of significantly more records.

NARA reported it has worked with the Central Intelligence Agency to create a program under which all 25-year old classified documents are scanned at the Presidential Libraries and made available electronically to equity holding agencies to centralize and expedite declassification.

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