Presidential libraries preserve archives and promote scholarship—but beyond that, they're marble-clad information tombs, quiet and somber and only remarkable for the architectural value of their designs. Obama is the first president who may change that.
Image: Sox the cat at the Clinton Presidential Library. Sunfell/CC
When he leaves office in 2016, Obama will leave behind a legacy that includes arguably the biggest change in White House operations for a century: from the digital migration away from fax machines and into email, to the changing jobs of the President's media monitors, who once stayed up all night waiting for the morning editions and now do most of their work online. The way the president corresponds has shifted towards electronic communication too (an idea the GOP has latched onto as potentially law-breaking!), and he's called upon all government agencies to move their work and records online.
As a result, it's likely that Obama won't have the voluminous amounts of papers, letters, and other correspondence that all the presidents who came before him did. Sure, he'll have plenty of physical archival materials, but they certainly won't be as huge as, say, LBJ's library in Austin, which was designed by the great Gordon Bunshaft to display hundreds of thick, red-and-gold bound books of archival papers as its central architectural element. I mean:
Instead, Obama's archives will likely be smaller and mostly digital. And so as the foundation in charge of organizing the design and construction of Obama's library ramps up its work, it'll be interesting to see how it envisions a presidential library in the digital age. Will the archival element of traditional presidential libraries be downplayed? Will it even feature? Or will Obama's library be something else entirely?
The design proposals
There are currently four institutions in the running to host the library: University of Illinois at Chicago, University of Chicago, Columbia University, and the University of Hawaii. We already know from the request-for-proposals that the Obama library will be more than a library—it must include, for example, "academic collaboration that will enhance the pursuit of the President's initiatives beyond 2017," including "an Institute and possibly a degree-seeking program," which isn't a particularly new idea, but also to spur economic and cultural development around the neighborhood where it eventually lands.
Several proposals for libraries have already been released—albeit in very early form—but one of the ones that gives us the best idea of what this project could be comes from University of Illinois, which unveiled a proposal that's less of a complex of building and more of a city-wide piece of infrastructure, connecting neighborhoods and creating new transit paths through the city.
The proposal would build two distinct clumps of buildings: First, a community center, including a museum and library, on a vacant lot in the West Side neighborhood of North Lawndale, which would facilitate the re-opening of a shuttered Blue line train stop, which the city has already promised to do if UIC wins the bid.
Second, an institute and visitor's center on the UIC campus, five miles east towards Lake Michigan. Between them, a "half-mile-wide" corridor, described as a "vibrant greenbelt," including pedestrian and bike trails atop an elevated defunct viaduct, as well as the capping of one of the city's busiest roads, the Eisenhower expressway. A new rapid transit line would connect along the green corridor, too.
It's just a proposal—there isn't even an architect yet—and it would need the approval of a long laundry list of stakeholders should it win (the other proposals look interesting, too). But it's a pretty cool idea: Assuming X number of millions of dollars are going to be spent to bolster a presidential legacy, why not make those dollars count for the city where that president got his start as a community organizer?
Earlier this year, architectural critic Witold Rybczynski called presidential libraries "archive, museum and shrine, rolled into one," and argued that Obama should "go small," or even forgo a library, to set an example for future presidents.
But UIC isn't really going small so much as going way, way bigger than any presidential library has before—a city-sized investment in public infrastructure, rather than a building-sized shrine.
Lead image: University of Illinois, Chicago