Bush library invigorates history by returning to the Source
As we become further removed from the tumultuous events of the early 2000s, children learn of its significance not from memory but from second hand accounts and entries in history books. But the scrupulous melding of source texts and modern communication technologies may connect a younger generation and reconnect older ones to the living, breathing events of Sept. 11, 2001 and the early days of the War on Terror.
This was a partial focus of the presentation given by Alan C. Lowe as the new Director of the George W. Bush Presidential Library spoke to the Irving Heritage Society on Sept. 30. He used his 24 years of experience roaming the National Archives from California to Washington, D.C. to demonstrate the importance of connecting Americans to the source documents of their history.
“We say in the library, ‘To really understand history, to understand the issues and events and people, look at the primary sources,’” Lowe said. “…(Digging) deep into the primary documentation – this is a great example of the resources of presidential libraries.”
Lowe used a draft of Ronald Reagan’s 1983 Evil Empire speech, which shows President Reagan’s detailed edits, as an example of how the libraries contribute to Americans’ understanding of history.
“This is a cool draft because I think it shows that Reagan was very engaged, as you can see his edits throughout the entire speech…,” he said. “People have different ways (of thinking about Reagan. The say) he wasn’t very engaged…but he was very engaged in what became a very historic speech.”
Since his first days at the Reagan Library in the early ‘90s, Lowe’s career took him to Washington, where he managed presidential libraries for the National Archive. He also cut his teeth as interim Director of the FDR Presidential Library and set up the Howard H. Baker Center for Public Policy at the University of Tennessee. During that time, he distilled his understanding of the real contributions of presidential libraries.
“The libraries are determined to educate good citizens in their communities… We are a resource for teachers and students,” he said. “And plus, we can do that in areas like history and civics teaching but also beyond, (contributing) to the public policy (through) our data because presidents deal with immense numbers of public policy (issues).
“But even more importantly than these specific issues, we (instruct) how do you do research, how do you use documents, how do you work together, how do you think critically.”
The basis of all the Bush Center’s work, Lowed stressed, is in the archives where archivists spent five years culling through millions of documents, arranging them so the public can access them efficiently.
Some of these files contain the Bush administration’s record policy memos. Written near the end of the administration, these documents supply a record, written by the people who made the decisions, about why they made them.
“I think for students and scholars, it’s a valuable resource saying this is the administration’s position. These are …things they thought about when they did (what they did),” Lowe said.
Archivists at the library’s warehouse in Lewisville have been ceaselessly sifting through the 70 million papers for half a decade.
“Fourteen archivists, their job every day is to read every document line by line and determine what can be opened and what has to be closed,” Lowe said. “For example, we have to close things for national security purposes, personal privacy…we have a lot of confidential financial information.”
This task is monumental. The Reagan library only contains 42 million papers.
Besides the millions of paper files, the Bush White House was the first to truly integrate technologies like email. Archivists are currently sifting through 80 terabytes of data. By comparison, the Clinton Library has four terabytes.
“We have a lot of paper records, but that doesn’t tell you the whole story. But what really distinguishes us is our electronic collection,” Lowe said. “The Bush White House is the first time that the computer really impacted the operations of the White House.
“The thing that keeps me awake occasionally is the email component. We have around 200 million emails that if you were to print them out would print about a billion pages… Now, a billion pages is more than every other presidential library combined, by far.
“I’m really pressing Washington, once we get past shutdown sequester and all that, to go back and think about how we (could) use technology to go through these emails, so my archivists don’t have to lay eyes on every line, every copy. And that is a bit of a heresy, because if we miss something that’s top secret or is (a) social security number, there are negative ramifications…but if it’s supposed to be about timely access, (we need to change our approach).”
Since the library began handling files in 2009, most of these archives have remained inaccessible, but starting at the end of January 2014 the information will be available to anyone who submits a Freedom of Information Act request.
Although most of these archives have been closed for over four and a half years, the library has already given the public access to whatever information they could. By working with President Bush and the Obama administration, the library has already released 400,000 documents.
Included among these are three pages President Bush wrote with a Sharpie (one of his favorite writing utensils) in a Florida classroom on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
“I think it’s a very historic document, because it’s his first thoughts on paper after he learned of the attacks,” Lowe said. “It’s really interesting to see the whole text, and then hear him speak it, because he added to it and embellished it, and you can tell these words were written in…the morning.”
But most visitors, even students, do not have the time to sift through raw data, no matter how well organized, so the Bush Center integrated the information into exhibits that allow participants to engage the material as real time sources, not footnotes in a textbook.
After the conference room in the White House was renovated, the old one was sent to Dallas. Immersed in this room, where the president decided the course of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, kids can run scenarios that President Bush faced during his eight years, including a Sept. 11 situation. The library has plans to conduct a Ronald Reagan situation, in conjunction with the Reagan Presidential Library, as well as one based on George Washington.
Another exhibit lets participants handle other crises that rocked the Bush White House including the Invasion of Iraq and Hurricane Katrina.
“You have to make decisions. You get advice from different sources, and each source has two people to give you opposite advice. And you can go to the Pentagon, go to Congress,” Lowe said. “(After it is all over) then the president comes out and says, ‘This is why I made this decision.’
“More fundamentally, (it) shows that presidents have to make decisions. You may completely disagree with him, or you may completely agree with him, but (it shows) the information. He has to apply these principles, and at the end of the day he has to make some really, really difficult, world changing decisions while he’s in office.”