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Stewarding President Obama’s legacy in the digital age


An American presidency has a remarkably complex historical legacy. Every presidency is both public and personal and holds different meaning for different individuals and communities, both at home and abroad. And each presidency has its own vast historical imprint, with tangible items like documents and artifacts, and intangible items like the memories and oral histories of the people that presidency reached.

Stewarding that legacy—collecting, curating, preserving, and describing the historical evidence and making it accessible to the public—is a massive undertaking. As a member of the team entrusted with that humbling task at the Obama Foundation, I know it cannot happen without sustained commitment, time, and—above all—help from our broad network of partners and friends.

That’s why I traveled to Las Vegas last week to listen, connect, and represent the Obama Foundation at the Digital Library Federation Forum. The Foundation recently joined this community of passionate librarians, archivists, curators and other allied professionals who share a collective mission (Opens in a new tab) “to advance learning, social justice and the public good through the creative design and wise application of digital library technologies.” In other words, exactly the group of folks who can help us be thoughtful, responsible, and innovative stewards of President Obama’s legacy.

The timing of the Forum couldn’t be better. Just today, we released a Letter of Intent between the Obama Foundation and the National Archives and Records Administration, or NARA, outlining the keys ways we’ll work together.

NARA has a vital charge (Opens in a new tab) that is crucial to our democracy: to preserve the records produced by the more than 400 departments and agencies of our federal government and make high-value records accessible to the public. Under the Presidential Records Act, they are also the legal custodians of records produced by the Executive Office of the President.

During the Obama Administration, official records were created every single day (weekends too!) in a wide range of physical and digital formats. Hundreds of terabytes of official emails, photos, videos, social media, office documents, and other digital files created during the Administration are already being preserved in NARA’s Electronic Records Archive.

In addition to these born-digital records, a vast body of unclassified physical materials is currently in storage outside Chicago, in a facility staffed by a team of experienced NARA archivists. This physical archive includes roughly 30 million pages of paper and more than 30,000 artifacts of all kinds: clothing, artwork, keepsakes, memorabilia, and more. Our NARA colleagues are already hard at work preserving these historical records, and they will begin to make some of them available to the public on or before January 20, 2022, five years after the end of the administration.

The Letter of Intent (Opens in a new tab) sets forward the following: the Foundation will digitize the unclassified records of the Obama Administration, including the paper records and a variety of artifacts, and an active and ongoing loan program will be developed with NARA so that visitors to the Museum at the Obama Presidential Center will have a chance to see, study, and be inspired by them. When not on display, these records will remain in the legal custody of the National Archives and will be available both online and through the loan program.

The Digital Library Federation Forum gave me the perfect opportunity to discuss an important issue in preservation circles: just because you digitize something, that doesn’t mean you’ve preserved it, and it doesn’t mean that people can automatically access it. Just like physical artifacts, digital information has to be described, organized, and actively managed over time so that people can still access it generations from now.

As we dig into this work, the Foundation will continue to consult with other experts and work closely with our colleagues at NARA to ensure that our new model of partnership doesn’t just create a mountain of new digital things but preserves them and shares them in a way that honors the legacy of President and Mrs. Obama, respects NARA’s awesome mission and the laws that support it, and, above all, serves the public.

That’s no small challenge. But we are committed to getting this right, with a group of trusted advisors and partners at our side.

I’ll look forward to sharing more updates as we embark on this massive effort together!

Emily Shaw is the Foundation’s Digitization Manager and resident librarian. She’s a proud Chicago native and a casual collector of terrible cookbooks.