Former President Barack Obama speaks near a rendering for his lakefront presidential center at a community event held in Chicago, May 3, 2017.
Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press
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The Obama Presidential Library That Isn’t

The Obama Presidential Center in Chicago won’t include a research library and archive. To some historians, that’s a problem.
The Obama Presidential Center promises to be a presidential library like no other.

The four-building, 19-acre “working center for citizenship,” set to be built in a public park on the South Side of Chicago, will include a 235-foot-high “museum tower,” a two-story event space, an athletic center, a recording studio, a winter garden, even a sledding hill.
But the center, which will cost an estimated $500 million, will also differ from the complexes built by Barack Obama’s predecessors in another way: It won’t actually be a presidential library.

In a break with precedent, there will be no research library on site, and none of Mr. Obama’s official presidential records. Instead, the Obama Foundation will pay to digitize the roughly 30 million pages of unclassified paper records from the administration so they can be made available online.

And the entire complex, including the museum chronicling Mr. Obama’s presidency, will be run by the foundation, a private nonprofit entity, rather than by the National Archives and Records Administration, the federal agency that administers the libraries and museums for all presidents going back to Herbert Hoover.

The plan was revealed, with little fanfare, in May 2017. Few details of the digitization were made public until Tuesday, when the foundation and the archives unexpectedly released a legal agreement outlining procedures for creating what is being billed as “first digital archives for the first digital president,” which they say will democratize access.

But as awareness of the plan has spread, some historians see a threat to future scholarship on the Obama administration — and to the presidential library system itself.

Without a dedicated repository, they argue, the rich constellations of related material found at the other libraries — papers donated by family members, cabinet members and aides, as well as pre-presidential and personal papers — could end up scattered, or even uncollected. And without help from specialized archivists, the promised digital democratization could just as easily turn into a hard-to-navigate data dump.
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