A History of the Presidency - The presidents' papers

The presidential library system was created in 1939 when Franklin D. Roosevelt, aware of the swelling quantity of presidential documents, donated his papers and a portion of his private estate at Hyde Park, New York, to the federal government. His plan was to establish a repository open to the public for the study of the presidency. Previously, presidential papers were handled on an ad hoc basis by presidents and their heirs and thus scattered throughout the country, to be found today in the collections of various museums, libraries, and historical societies. Some, like Millard Fillmore's and Chester Arthur's, were deliberately destroyed. Many presidents' papers are to be found in the Library of Congress.

Today there are ten libraries in the presidential library system. The quantity of papers, now supplemented by extensive electronic records, seems to grow with each succeeding presidency. Incredible as it may seem, Lyndon Johnson took back with him to his library in Austin, Texas, twenty-five hundred five-drawer filing cabinets. Under an act of Congress passed in 1955, the libraries are constructed by private and nonfederal means but are maintained by public funds. Under the Presidential Records Act of 1978, a president's papers belong to the nation, and as soon as an administration ends the Archivist of the United States takes possession of them. No longer may presidents consider the papers generated in their time in the White House as their private property. So when an administration leaves office, it leaves no files behind.

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