"One Definite Locality"

History of the FDR Presidential Library & Museum

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed the idea of building a library to house his papers and memorabilia, detractors believed he was simply interested in constructing a monument to himself. Roosevelt, however, viewed the library as a solution to two problems – how to simultaneously preserve and provide public access to the records of his presidency. His was an attitude of “open government,” believing that the people of the United States were entitled to a better look at how their government was working, even at the executive level.

FDR Library under construction, 1939
Southeast view of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library, under construction. December 3, 1939.

As an avid amateur historian, Roosevelt recognized the value of his papers and believed they should be saved for future historians and the American people. His collections contain personal and family papers, manuscripts related to his public career at the state and national level, photographs, sound and motion picture recordings, books, and periodicals. FDR also had a vast memorabilia collection, including ship models, prints and paintings, state gifts, gifts from the American people, and family items.

By the time FDR reached the Presidency, his personal and professional papers amounted to such a large collection of material there was no single place that could adequately house it all. During his presidency, Roosevelt received approximately 4,000 letters a day from people commenting on his policies and his running of the government. He enjoyed his contact with the people and encouraged their writing. On November 19, 1939 at the cornerstone laying ceremony for the library, Roosevelt said, “Of the papers which will come to rest here I personally attach less importance to the documents of those who have occupied high public or private office, than I do the spontaneous letters which have come to me and my family and my associates from men, from women, and from children in every part of the United States, telling me of their conditions and problems, and giving me their opinions.”

A Proposal

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FDR Dedicated the First Presidential Library in 1941

In 1934, Roosevelt signed legislation allowing for the creation of the National Archives, a repository dedicated to preserving the nation’s history. He had always had an interest in history and recordkeeping, and often involved himself in the organization of the new agency. In a 1949 article published in The American Archivist, Dr. R. D. W. Connor recalls his first meeting with Roosevelt, during which he was appointed Archivist of the United States. Connor described his meeting with Roosevelt, saying he “delivered a dissertation on the importance of the National Archives, both to the government and to scholars, pointed out some of its problems that required immediate attention, and assured me that I could rely on his continued interest in its development. ‘You know,’ [Roosevelt] added, ‘it’s my baby!’”

FDR's original sketch of the Library, pencil on yellow legal paper, April 12, 1937.
FDR's original pencil sketch of the Library, drawn April 12, 1937.

At a press conference held December 10, 1938, Roosevelt explained the need for a place to keep his own papers after his presidency, saying, “For the last two years I have been considering more and more the final disposal of what amounts to probably the largest collection of original source material of almost anybody over the last quarter of a century.” To solve this problem, FDR wanted to build a library to house his collections on his family property in Hyde Park.

Roosevelt shared this vision with those at the press conference, saying, “Because these papers relate to so many periods and activities which are not connected with my service in the Federal Government, I do not wish to break them up, leaving a portion of them to the National Archives and dividing the rest . . . It is my desire that they be kept as a whole and intact in their original condition, available to scholars of the future in one definite locality.”

In addition, Roosevelt hoped the library would also become the repository for the papers of his associates and contemporaries. He envisioned creating a source material collection, a place where people could research not just the FDR administration, but a significant period in American and International history. Roosevelt explained this idea at his press conference, saying the library would hold all of his own collections along with “other source material relating to this period in our history as might be donated to the collection in the future by other members of the present Administration.”

FDR’s idea was to build a new library using private funds, then to give the structure and its historical collections over to the United States government. The National Archives would become stewards of the library and its historical materials – museum objects, archival documents, photographs, and moving images. The government would also be charged with maintaining open access to these materials in the form of a museum and research room.

His plan for the first presidential library set a precedent that all future chief executives have followed since, and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) now administers 13 of these institutions in all.

The Early Years

The Franklin D. Roosevelt Library was dedicated on June 30, 1941. A small ceremony, attended by close friends and members of the community, was held in front of the Library. Almost 2,000 local residents attended the dedication and visited the museum that day.

Originally, the museum was more of a showcase for various collections. There was a gallery devoted to Roosevelt’s model ship collection and a room full of “oddities,” gifts given to FDR and Eleanor during his time in office. The main gallery held an exhibit of artwork created through the WPA Art program, while the basement held a display of stagecoaches, on loan for the exhibit, and an iceboat similar to one used by Roosevelt as a child.

FDR speaks at the Library Dedication ceremony, June 30, 1941.

FDR intended to spend time at the library after his presidency sorting the multitude of papers and artifacts to prepare them for the public. That changed when Roosevelt died suddenly on April 12, 1945. Now, the task of sorting his papers was left primarily to three people: Harry L. Hopkins, Samuel I. Rosenman, and Grace Tully. Unfortunately, Hopkins died less than a year after Roosevelt. With the help of Library staff members, Rosenman, Tully, and Library Director Fred W. Shipman, embarked on the monumental task of organizing Roosevelt’s papers.

As the committee worked to organize the papers, researchers were allowed limited access to material that already had been processed. One of the earliest collections made available for research was FDR’s naval papers and other correspondence, dated between 1913 and 1920. Although most of the presidential papers were not yet sorted and made ready for research, but that didn’t deter people from visiting the Library to look at Roosevelt’s other materials. The first “search card,” a card given to researchers, was issued in June 1946 to Martin P. Claussen, a historian of the Army Air Forces from Alexandria, VA. Collections were gradually made available to the public as the committee worked through the papers.

Young visitors to the Museum at the FDR Library, 1971
A view inside the first archival storage areas at the FDR Presidential Library in Hyde Park, NY, 1941.

The legal status of Roosevelt’s papers also had to be resolved in these early years. Since the papers were FDR’s personal property, he had expressed his wish that they be given to the government along with his other collections in the Library. It took almost three years for a court to finally determine that the collections were government property in accordance with FDR’s wishes.  

At the same time, the United States Senate engaged in a legal battle with the Library over the right to view the collection in its entirety. The committee, Director Shipman, and President Truman, maintained that the collection could not be opened to the public until all the documents had been examined for “sensitive information.” Information was considered sensitive if it would give away government secrets or if it would embarrass people who were still living. Members of the US Senate, however, believed the collection held vital information for their investigations into both Arabian oil deals and WWII contracts.

When it was finally determined that the papers were government property, the committee working on the papers (Shipman, Rosenman, and Tully) were authorized to decide if some papers were too sensitive to be opened to the public. Eventually the Senate committee was able to examine a majority of the papers, but did not find any relevant information for their investigations.

Open to the Public

Young visitors to the Museum at the FDR Library, 1971
Young visitors to the Naval Room exhibit at the FDR Presidential Library and Museum, 1971.

The committee had gone through an astonishing amount of material in only five years, and by 1950, 85% of the collection had been processed. On March 17, 1950, those materials were opened to the public.

Over the next twenty years, the library saw a steady stream of researchers and museum visitors. As the number of researchers increased, so did the number of available collections. The variety of collections at the Library provides researchers with a unique look at FDR and his administration. The Library is not only a repository for Roosevelt’s papers and collections, but is also the home of papers donated by Harry L. Hopkins, Frances Perkins, Louis M. Howe, Samuel I. Rosenman, Henry Morgenthau, Jr. and others who were actively involved in shaping government policy during FDR’s presidency. To a great extent, FDR’s vision has been realized and the Library functions as a center for the study of the New Deal and American government in World War II.

Expansion

Eleanor Roosevelt died in 1962, and according to her and FDR’s wishes, her enormous collection of papers was added to the holdings of the Library. Numbering almost two million pages, ER’s papers were a major addition to the collection. Her papers contain correspondence from her White House years and the seventeen years after; copies of her newspaper column “My Day”; transcripts from her many radio broadcasts; and much more. The size and scope of her papers reflects the prominence that Eleanor Roosevelt had in public life.

FDR's sketch of proposed extensions to the Library, May 21, 1942.
FDR's sketch for future Library extensions, drawn May 21, 1942.

By 1970, the Library expanded to accommodate ER’s materials and the ever-increasing visitorship. Over the next two years the Eleanor Roosevelt Wings were constructed. Dedicated in 1972, the new wings included an exhibition gallery and increased storage and work space for the Library.

By 1976, 99.5% of the Library’s holdings were open to the public. This included Eleanor Roosevelt’s papers, Henry Morgenthau Jr.’s extensive diaries, the classified wartime correspondence between FDR and Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and many other collections donated by members of Roosevelt’s administration. Dr. William Emerson, the Library Director at the time, said he believed the last .5% of the collection would always remain closed, due to the sensitive nature of the material. Even more material has been opened since that prediction was made, and now only a small number of documents remain closed to research.

2013 Library Rededication: A New Deal for a New Generation

Over time, the Library attempted to keep pace with evolving professional standards for the preservation and storage of historical documents and artifacts. As the years passed, however, it became apparent that to adequately protect these valuable materials while remaining committed to public access, the Library would have to both renovate and expand its facilities.

On March 11, 2009 the Library was informed that they would receive $17.5 million from the federal budget to begin renovation of the library. With the exception of the Eleanor Roosevelt Wings added in 1972, this would be the first major renovation of the Library structure since it opened in 1941.

By May 2010, the renovation was underway. Long overdue, this renovation preserved the Library’s historical appearance while bringing the building up to National Archives’ standards for the long-term preservation of historic collections. New drainage, plumbing, and roofing systems and new electrical, security, fire protection and other systems address longstanding facility problems. Museum visitors and researchers now enjoy improved amenities, including, for the first time, full accessibility for people in wheelchairs. New permanent museum exhibits were installed with $6 million in private funds raised by the Roosevelt Institute, the Library’s non-profit partner.

On June 30, 2013 a grand rededication ceremony marked the public opening of the newly renovated Library and Museum, taking place exactly 72 years after FDR's original dedication in 1941.

 
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