Fact Sheet: The Obama Presidential Archives
March 8, 2019 4:24 PM
The Obama Foundation is proud to be working in partnership with the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) to lay the foundation for enhanced public access and engagement with the archives of the Obama presidency. Some of the key elements of our work together include:
- The Foundation is funding a large-scale project to digitize some 30 million pages of unclassified paper records of the Obama presidency, which will be added to the body of approximately 1.5 billion pages of emails, PDFs, documents, spreadsheets, and other NARA-owned and managed Presidential Records that were born-digital (and therefore have no paper equivalents) to create the Obama Presidential Library. In this way, the Foundation will be funding the creation of government-owned and -controlled assets.
- NARA will make these records available under the same standards and practices under which NARA has always administered records in accordance with the Presidential Records Act.
- Just as with other Presidential Libraries, NARA will have a staff dedicated to preserving, reviewing, and providing access to the Presidential Records of the Obama Administration. They will help the public, including historians and other researchers, find and access the born-digital and digitized records.
- While primary access to the records will be digital, researchers will have access to original documents according to NARA’s existing policy: where an access copy has been made (whether digital, paper, or microfilm), NARA will make originals available in existing NARA research rooms if and when a researcher identifies a compelling need to work with an original.
- The Obama Presidential Center will have a Museum that will tell the story of President Obama’s historic path to the presidency framed within the larger story of American history. While the Museum itself will be paid for and managed by the Foundation, a substantial number of items (records and artifacts) on display will be lent to the Foundation by NARA, allowing visitors to engage with presidential items as they do at other NARA-run presidential museums.
The Foundation will continue to update the public on developments related to these efforts and our partnership with NARA as our work continues.
A Library for the Digital Age
Presidential Libraries have evolved over the years, and even as the volume of electronic records has been growing over time, NARA’s Obama Presidential Library will be the first to truly reflect the digital age. The vast majority of the records from the Obama presidency were born-digital—for an estimated 95 percent of the records, there never was a paper version.
NARA’s Presidential Libraries are working with several of the presidential foundations to digitize their records. NARA’s Obama Library aims to be the first to have all unclassified records digitized in line with NARA’s practices and standards. It also aims to be the first to have them all digitized before they are subject to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). While the Obama Foundation will fund the digitization, NARA staff will directly oversee this work and ensure that the processes and outputs meet all of NARA’s relevant policies, regulations, and best practices. The digitization project will capture the digital surrogates in the same order as the corresponding paper originals were in the boxes and folders that were maintained by the White House. In addition, digitizing the estimated less than five percent of the records that were not born digital will later allow NARA to review all unclassified records digitally.
NARA has said that, considering the increasing volume of born-digital records, creating a digital library aligns with changes in the expectations of the public that its holdings be available free and online. It also fits squarely with NARA’s new Strategic Plan.
Expanding Access and Engagement
A fully digital archives has the potential to enable broader access to the records, as it not only means free, online access but lays the foundation for using technology to enhance search and engagement capabilities. The Foundation and NARA have committed to working together to explore and pursue innovative ways to connect and leverage the records—a long-term goal of the Obama Foundation, in line with our overall civic engagement mission.
The vast majority—an estimated 95 percent—of the Obama Presidential Records were created digitally and have no paper equivalents. For those that will be digitized, the original paper documents will be preserved by NARA at a NARA-administered facility and made available to the public under the same policies and practices as other digitized NARA collections.
Just as with other Presidential Libraries, NARA will have a staff dedicated to preserving, reviewing, and providing access to the Presidential Records of the Obama Administration. They will help the public, including historians and other researchers, find and access the born-digital and digitized records.
NARA has said that it is committed to supporting all researchers, whether they visit one of NARA’s physical research rooms or access its holdings online. NARA reaches more people today online than it serves in its research rooms around the country, so has noted that this is an important issue and that it is continually exploring how it can increase and improve its engagement with online researchers.
In addition, scholars will have access to original documents according to NARA’s existing policy: where an access copy has been made (whether digital, paper, or microfilm), NARA will make originals available in existing NARA research rooms if and when a researcher identifies a compelling need to work with an original. That policy will apply to the Obama records as well.
Records and Artifacts at the Obama Presidential Center Museum
The Obama Presidential Center Museum will tell the story of President Obama’s historic path to the presidency framed within the larger story of American history, including a spotlight on Chicago’s prominent role in the civil rights movement and its history of community engagement. It will focus on President Obama’s eight years in office, featuring exhibits about the events, policies, accomplishments—and challenges—of the Obama presidency, rooted in the larger discussion about democracy and the role of government that our nation has been having since its founding.
While the Museum itself will be paid for and managed by the Foundation, a substantial number of the records and artifacts on display will be lent to the Foundation by NARA, allowing visitors to engage with presidential items as they do at other NARA-run presidential museums. This could include items such as President Obama’s major speeches and the White House state china service. These loaned records and artifacts will be subject to NARA’s standards for the display of any NARA record or artifact. Some examples from the NARA-controlled archives will appear physically (e.g., on display in cases) or digitally (e.g., inclusion in a variety of audio-visual programs).
In addition, both NARA and the Obama Presidential Center Museum will continue to collect items related to the Obama Administration. The Foundation is currently developing a collections management policy aligned with the accreditation standards of the American Alliance of Museums and incorporating the professional codes of ethics and best practices of our nation’s leading cultural heritage organizations: the American Library Association (ALA), the Society of American Archivists (SAA), the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC), Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), and others.
The Museum’s collections and curatorial staff is determining plans to provide research access to any items collected by the Obama Presidential Center Museum.
Many prominent research collections and museums are managed by private institutions for the benefit of the general public, not private gain. The Obama Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, will take this approach. The Foundation takes its public history and education responsibilities very seriously and is working with outside experts, including NARA, to ensure the Museum presents the story of the Obama presidency in all its complexity.
For more about the Obama Presidential Center, please click here.
Who will pay for the Obama Museum’s construction and operation costs? Who will curate it?
The Obama Foundation. The Museum’s exhibitions will incorporate originals and surrogates (physical and digital) of archival materials that are under NARA’s control, such as paper copies of presidential speeches or bills signed into law by President Obama. Museum exhibits will include a range of objects from our own collections, or from other institutions, alongside those on loan from NARA’s holdings.
Are you privatizing the Presidential Library system?
We are not privatizing the library system, or even this collection. On the contrary, the Foundation is funding the digitization of NARA-owned and -controlled records. Just as with other Presidential Libraries, NARA will have a staff dedicated to preserving, reviewing, and providing access to the Presidential Records of the Obama Administration. They will help the public, including historians and other scholars, find and access the born-digital and digitized records.
Will archives from the Obama Administration be publicly available?
Yes. NARA will make the Presidential Records of the Obama Administration available in accordance with the Presidential Records Act and accessible online in the NARA Catalog and NARA’s Barack Obama Presidential Library website. Third-party applications and websites, such as the Foundation’s, will be able to access this data as well.