Broadening the Bush Library Debate

Archivists see dispute at SMU as chance to focus attention on whether presidential libraries are losing access to key documents.
February 6, 2007

As professors at Southern Methodist University have mobilized against the plans to build President Bush's library there, their focus has not been the library, but a policy institute to be affiliated with it that would have as its mission promoting the Bush philosophy.

Such an institute, with an explicitly ideological identity and reporting to the president's foundation instead of to the university, runs counter to academic values, the critics have said. Many times they have attempted to contrast their dislike of the institute with the library itself, which could be a valuable source of documents on the Bush administration -- open to scholars with a range of views. And SMU officials, in defending the library plans, have stressed the scholarly value of the archive.

But with opposition to the SMU plans growing, national groups of archivists and historians are trying to broaden the debate. Weeks after 9/11, President Bush signed an executive order giving presidents and former presidents much more control over their records -- and extended that right to a family member when a former president dies. While there have been periodic disputes over how much control presidents should have over their papers, the Bush order goes beyond the control asserted by any president since Nixon (whose efforts to control his papers led to various laws to promote access).

Archivists and historians have tried a variety of approaches to challenging the Bush executive order -- to date, without much success. The administration has said that the order was needed to protect national security. Now scholars are hoping to use the SMU debate to start a new campaign against the executive order -- and they are asking SMU to turn down the library as long as the executive order stays in place.

"I think this is very significant," said Benjamin Hufbauer, an associate professor of art history at the University of Louisville and author of Presidential Temples: How Memorials and Libraries Shape Public Memory (University Press of Kansas). "They are raising the profile of an issue that gets to the heart of the profession."

With the executive order in place, Hufbauer said, it isn't fair for SMU to argue that a great scholarly resource will be placed on its campus. "People say that the archive is the most valuable part of it. That's where you can hopefully get to historical truth," Hufbauer. "But if you don't have all the papers, instead you have just a museum of political propaganda."

Mark Allen Greene, president-elect of the Society of American Archivists and director of the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming, said "we need to raise the visibility of the issue" -- with Congress, the public and universities.

"We're concerned that the presidential library itself is going to be in effect an empty shell. If the executive order stands, his wife and children could embargo the release of materials," Greene said.

The archivists are also asking SMU to take a stand: "We would love for the SMU administration to say: 'No, we won't accept the library unless you reverse the executive order.' It would be our hope that any other universities would have the same response, to put some additional pressure on the administration."

The Project on Government Secrecy, of the Federation of American Scientists, is also joining the push, with lobbying of Congress and SMU. Steven Aftergood, director of the project, said, "I think the decision about where to locate the library has the potential to merge with a larger debate regarding Bush administration information policy."

He expects the battle to be decided in Congress and the courts, but agrees that the SMU fight creates an opening for archivists and historians to use.

While the SMU dispute may help the archivists gain attention, there are no signs that these discussions are prompting the university to rethink its position.

"We will continue to follow dialogue on this important issue; however, it is not realistic to expect that one university has the capability of getting an executive order rescinded, as has been suggested of SMU," said a statement from the university. "This is a matter for the public policy arena that transcends one institution and one particular moment in time. As we have stated, SMU is considering more than the immediate impact of this project. A presidential library must be considered for the long-term benefits and opportunities it can provide."


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