After a series of starts and stops and a lengthy legal battle over construction clearance, Barack Obama’s presidential library is pressing ahead today. A livestream ceremony is underway at the site of the future archives.
One catch: The center, as the New York Times reports, “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.”
Alongside the center will sit a museum, a sports space, a test kitchen, an art plaza, a kids’ area, and a new branch of the Chicago Public Library. The breaking of ground hits bedrock on levels deeper than just the framing of a foundation. It comes on the heels of four years of Donald Trump’s damage to democracy and a still-going pandemic that’s scrambled all conventions of civic life. Obama’s center is the first in history without a physical archives room, making it a cementing of contrasts; a wager about what transparency looks like.
Historians are still wrestling with just how transparent any digital archives can be, as Obama himself pondered in his memoir A Promised Land. His library puts to the test the promise of a promise, or as the philosopher Daniel Dennett intones in other contexts, belief in belief: If Obama’s legacy rests on his hypothesis of good governance as a way to broaden civic participation, his library runs that test through.
Presidential libraries got their start with FDR’s during World War II, when defending democracy against authoritarianism was tested again. Every library since then has busied itself with enshrining a namesake’s legacy by tightly guarding a narrative. See Mother Jones’ 2013 classic “8 Things You Won’t See at the George W. Bush Presidential Library.” But as a culmination of historical firsts, Obama’s center is thoroughly “cause for celebration,” as CNN rightly rejoices.