Franklin D Roosevelt Library, Hyde Park, NY

Today I caught the train up the very beautiful Hudson Valley to visit the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, just north of Poughkeepsie. The FDR Library is the oldest Presidential Library (although Hoover is the earliest chronologically) and really the whole Presidential Library system was begun by FDR with the establishment of his library. Unlike all the other Presidential Libraries though, this one was established while the President was still in office and so is the only Presidential Library that was actually used by a sitting President. It is located on the Roosevelt family estate on the banks of the Hudson, right by the house where FDR was born, grew up, and next to the rose garden in which he is buried. It's a glorious location, and the whole place is really steeped in the history of his life and his family.

I was looked after all day by Kirsten Carter and her colleague Sarah, who spent some time talking to me about all my areas of interest - the library, their digitisation projects and use of social media.

The Library is currently being renovated, for the first time since it opened in 1941 and so everything is in quite a state of upheaval. The reading room and stacks are all in temporary accommodation within the visitor centre, and about 10% of their collections are being housed offsite and are not currently available for consultation. However they are maintaining their services throughout the disruption, which looks set to continue until 2013.

They have just started on a massive project to digitise some 350,000 documents, which they hope to make available by next summer. Next to the massive project currently underway at the Kennedy Library, this is about the biggest digitisation project undertaken at a Presidential Library, and they are clearly very excited about it and its potential. They have already undertaken a number of smaller projects, depending on funding - the background considerations to their digitisation projects are much the same as with the other institutions I have visited. Also like many of these other institutions, they are also working very hard to get their finding aids available online too, to help users get more information about their collections and what they have available before they come to do research. They are also enthusiastic users of social media to promote the library's collections and engage with a more public audience. They have uploaded a huge amount of archival film to YouTube, are busy putting up historic photos to Flickr, and have a blog where they post documents and information about them.

After a break for lunch, I had the opportunity to go on one of the National Park Service's tours of the Roosevelt home. The ranger gave us a lot of information about FDR's background, life, and particularly the way his polio affected both him and the house. There are a few of his wheelchairs about the place, and we also got to see the manually-operated trunk lift (or giant dumb waiter) by means of which FDR was able to get up and downstairs in the house. There was great secrecy, of course, around his inability to walk, and his wheelchairs and ramps would be hidden when visitors came to the house so as to preserve the fiction that he was not as disabled as he was. One lovely anecdote that was shared though related to his love of political cartoons, a number of which hang in the entrance hall. Many of them are very anti-British, and when King George VI and Queen Elizabeth came to visit in 1939, Sara Roosevelt thought quite strongly that they should be taken down, but FDR disagreed. So the cartoons stayed on the wall, and when the King came in, of course he went straight up to them, only to say "Mr President, you have some in your collection that I don't have!".

After the tour I had a wander around the museum, which includes FDR's study, kept just as it was in 1945. The Library contains FDR's own book collection as well as his papers, which is interesting in and of itself, and also means they have a lot of material you might not expect them to have, such as a large collection of pulp murder mysteries (including the one he was reading when he died), a collection of documents relating to earlier Presidents (they have the signature of every President pre-FDR in their collection), and most amazingly and unexpectedly, one of only two surviving copies of a 1480 missal from Utrecht, which Kirsten and Sarah brought out for me to see, along with a number of their crown jewel documents: a draft, with fascinating annotations, of his 'day of infamy' speech after Pearl Harbor; his speech for the signing of the social security act; his handwritten 'bedside note' from when he was informed in the middle of the night that Germany had invaded Poland (essentially his own press release); correspondence from King George in advance of the royal visit, as well as a wonderful set of instructions about what the King and Queen were to have provided for them in terms of breakfast and which newspapers were acceptable or not to be provided (The Times and The Telegraph among the former category, The Mail, The Mirror and The News of the World among the latter). I also got to see a couple of documents from the Eleanor Roosevelt papers which are of course also housed at the Library: her letter of resignation and indignation sent to the Daughters of the American Revolution after they withdrew their invitation to Marion Anderson, the famous African American singer, to perform in Constitution Hall (Mrs Roosevelt instead arranged for the concert to take place on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial); and her annotated draft of the UN Declaration on Human Rights. As with the other treasures I've been privileged enough to see on this trip, seeing these documents was a real thrill. This aspect of my trip has really made so much of American history seem so much more 'real', almost.

Finally, Kirsten and Sarah took me on a tour of their stacks, which was a real visual demonstration of the extend and breadth of their collections - not just FDR's papers or Eleanor's, but vast holdings of papers from other individuals involved in the FDR administrations, as well as cabinet after cabinet of photos and huge quantities of sound and video recordings. It's been another fantastic and illuminating day!


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