As President Obama’s time in office comes to a close, the massive task of hauling and preserving records from his presidency is just getting started.
Tractor-trailers packed with boxes of White House memos, handwritten notes, schedules and more began leaving Washington at the end of October. It will take 24 convoys to move what has been called the “president’s attic.” And there’s even more than what’s in the trucks.
The trucks are headed for Illinois to the temporary headquarters of the Obama Library, until the permanent library in Chicago opens in 2021. It will be the 14th presidential library, part of the National Archives and Records Administration, storing everything from phone messages to gifts from heads of state and others.
Once the shipments arrive in Illinois from the White House, the boxes of records stay sealed until noon on Inauguration Day.
“The National Archives doesn’t legally own anything until that time on that day,” said Brooke Clement, the supervisory archivist for the Obama Library. After that, the library begins processing the records, which can take years.
Presidential records are preserved for transparency, so there is documentation of how the country’s leader and those in his administration made the decisions that steered U.S. policy.
“If you’re in the White House, anything you do, the public has to have access to it,” said Tom Putnam, acting director of the National Archives’ Office of Presidential Libraries.
Until the Presidential Records Act of 1978, a president’s papers were considered to be his, and he could donate them to whom he chose. The act made the presidential records public and established a legal structure for presidents to manage their records.
— GeorgeWBush Library (@GWBLibrary) December 9, 2016
Gifts to presidents — like the many autographed basketballs Obama has received over the years — also get stored at the library.
There are many things more unusual than basketballs in presidential libraries. President Gerald Ford’s library includes a complete Declaration of Independence spelled out in macaroni. A paperweight made from a coconut into which President John F. Kennedy carved a rescue message when he was a U.S. Navy lieutenant during World War II is preserved in the Kennedy Library.
The number of gifts that end up in the libraries helps demonstrate the difference between the jobs of president or first lady and the private citizens who fill them. “If a first lady’s given a piece of jewelry, is that for her?” Putnam offered up as an example. “The answer is generally no, she can wear it while she’s first lady, but then it goes to the presidential library.”
— Clinton Library (@WJCLibrary) December 6, 2016
In addition to the paper records, the Obama presidency includes extensive amounts of digital materials and social media. While the number of records for each successive president’s administration has grown, the digitization of the modern presidency means less paper, more data. Along with emails, there are millions of hours of video, photographs and social media postings that will become part of the Obama Library. All told, that’s about 200 terabytes of data — enough to fill 30,000 DVDs.