Feature Archive: Presidential Libraries

Each month, a researcher shares their experiences of using a particular archive. The overall aim of this section is to create a database of the different archives available to those working on French and Francophone studies that will be of help particularly to students just starting out in research.

Dr Ludivine Broch is a lecturer in History at the University of Westminster. Here she talks about her research in the Harry S. Truman and Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Libraries in the USA

I live and work in London, and regularly travel to France for family and research reasons. What, then, was I doing in Independence, Missouri, having a vending machine lunch of Lay’s crisps and a Snickers bar at the Truman Library?

I needed their archives. My second monograph project is about the Gratitude Train, when French people gifted 52,000 objects in 49 boxcars to America in 1949 as a thank you for their help during and after the Second World War. So it’s natural that I needed to travel to America for part of my research. What surprised me, though, is just how much material they had on France and the French, not only in the Truman Library, but also in the other Presidential Library I visited, the Lyndon B Johnson Library and Archives in Austin, Texas.

Harry S. Truman Library. Independence, Missouri

There are, Wikipedia tells me, 13 Presidential libraries in America, and 6 additional ones not run by the National Archives and Research Administration (NARA). Located in the home towns of past presidents, the first was built in 1941 for F. D. Roosevelt. In terms of buildings, they were both extremely modern and very dated: the bright green lawns surround the imposing Harry S. Truman Library and Museum (see photo above), a contrast to the entrance to the archives themselves, which is much smaller on the rear of the building and teleports you to the (albeit elegant) 1980s. One could be led to believe that the ladies’ bathroom is a deliberate ‘full immersion’ experience into the post-war era (see below).

Truman Library, ladies bathroom

Similarly, the modernist block that houses the LBJ Presidential Library (see below) contrasts with the décor of the windowless archive reading room. Of course, as historians, we are also used to such reading rooms, and they are not at all without their charm. The geographical isolation of the Truman Library, though (Independence, Missouri is not the most buzzing town) was a bit of a surprise; the LBJ by contrast was in a major Texan city, and located near the University of Texas in close vicinity to a few other research centres, with a couple of cafes in walking distance. The Truman Library did not have a researcher-friendly food and water source, by contrast. I was advised that the closest place to eat was the McDonald’s along the highway, a 25-minute walk away. I decided that the vending machine was my best bet – when you’re ‘on the road’ researching archives on a tight schedule, time is too precious, and McDonald’s was not quite alluring enough to make that sacrifice. So Snickers and Lay’s crisps it was (my inner child was also super excited about this).

LBJ Library, Austin, Texas.

I almost didn’t go to these presidential archives. When creating what was a quite complicated itinerary of my research trip – 7 states, 17 archives, 25 days – I wondered if I would find anything of real significance there in comparison to some other archives.

Turns out, they were amongst my most important stops.

I’d contacted both Presidential Libraries in advance, with my specific research interests as well as arrival dates and times. Having a contact there proved essential in getting started, but also getting more inside info. When I registered at the LBJ Library, I was given an appointment that morning to run through archive rules with the archivist I had been in touch with. I secretly thought I’d just like to get on with things, but taking the time to chat to the Library archivist Brian McNerney allowed me to do several key things. First, to have the material I’d requested available to me at the fastest rate possible. In our email exchanges I’d underlined my serious time constraints, and he really helped by preparing everything for my arrival. But putting a face to the name made it much more personal, and opened up more conversations and possibilities. First, about the collection I was specifically interested in, the Drew Pearson Papers. Not only did Brian have a deep knowledge of this whole collection and its owner which he was delighted to share, but my interest in the collection led him to start re-filing sections of it which had been previously ‘closed off’. The accessibility of the collection needed updating, he explained, so why not start now? Before I left, he had already sifted through several files and cleared them for accessibility, meaning I was the first to ever see them. I will surely return there to finish off some research when the remaining material is made open to the public.

The second major benefit of chatting to Brian was that he took the time to explain the Presidential Library system to me, underlining the importance of the White House Central Files and explaining how I should search the index, finding correspondence, reports and myriad non-security-related matters through Name Files, Subject Files or Chronological Files. Likewise, the President’s Secretary’s Files conserved a range of important and confidential files often having to do with the president’s daily activities. The meetings he held are thus all kept there, and crucially ‘preparatory’ reports drawn up for meetings – which give a much closer and more intimate view of the topics of conversation and interpersonal relations – are very rich sources.

This kind of inside knowledge was especially useful when I then went to the Truman Library. There were a couple of important files there waiting for me, but otherwise I had expected to mostly work on my own university-related work in my 2.5 days there. I was quickly proven wrong. The President’s Secretary’s Files and the White House Central Files, as well as the Records of Democratic National Committee, gave me valuable insights into Franco-American relations in the 1940s and 1950s. If there were few meetings between Vincent Auriol and Harry Truman, there were myriad files allowing me to better understand how these two countries viewed each other. Collections of French newspaper reports, for instance, came annotated to show what mattered for the American government at the time. The gifts exchanged between the two nations and its leaders also provided me with fascinating insight into the importance of gifts and objects in diplomatic relations. Letters from French people to the American president, or letters from Americans complaining about the French, also allowed for a crucial and powerful insight into transnational relations in the post-war years.

I left the Truman Library without completing my to-do list, which had gotten considerably longer. Hanging out at the vending machine, I bumped into the supervisory archivist, Sam Rushay, who shared great advice about some audio-visual sources which might interest me. The archivist Laurie Austin then came to talk about this more with me, and arranged to give me access to some video recordings which I could view online once back home in London, since my time was limited. Again, the generosity of the staff in both presidential libraries really stood out. They are delighted for people to view their materials and made it as easy as possible for me to do so.

For anyone interested in international relations with France, American presidential libraries are great places to get fresh insights which would otherwise be inaccessible. And just scrolling through their online archive catalogues (at LBJ and Truman Libraries) could unlock even more material of interest for specific projects. Of course, travelling to these places is not easy in terms of time and money. But the Truman Library, for instance, has grants to help fund travellers, whilst you can coordinate visits to presidential libraries in major cities, like Austin, with other archives and libraries – whilst in Austin I visited a total of four different institutions, each important in its own way, encouraging me to look beyond traditional archival institutions and thinking about my project in different ways.

To summarise, Presidential Libraries are unexpected places to find a wealth of material on France and the French. Getting in touch with archivists before planning a trip is crucial, and they will help you start to identify relevant sources for your project. Once there, keep talking to these lovely people, and make the most of the incredible resources these places offer.

Otherwise, in terms of transport, there are lots of Ubers in Austin but you’d need a car in Independence, or be OK being the only pedestrian in the entire town (and hope it doesn’t rain).

Food-wise:

Recommended lunch option in Austin, Texas: If you’re in the LBJ library, no need to go far. O’s café in building opposite. I have a soft spot for thick Tuna mayo sandwiches and Lay’s salted crisps.

Recommended dinner option in Austin, Texas: Fukomoto. Delicious Japanese food with tasty non-sushi options for pregnant women. And nice window-seat-bar for solo diners.

Recommended lunch option in Independence, Missouri: the vending machine in the Truman Library archive basement. No windows; nice people.

Recommended dinner option in Independence, Missouri: Ophelia’s. Their grilled chicken & salad is really refreshing. Their sides of greens are also really tasty. Square’s Pizza, too – very nice. In general, enjoy this time-warp city which houses more churches than you can count.

Thank you very much for this, Ludivine!

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