Barack Obama’s Library, the First Digital-Driven Presidential Archives in History, Breaks Ground Today

Michelle and Barack Obama in May 2016Drew Angerer/Getty

Facts matter: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter. Support our nonprofit reporting. Subscribe to our print magazine.

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 Jones2013 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.

Catch the livestream here.

REAL QUICK, REAL URGENT

Minority rule, corruption, disinformation, attacks on those who dare tell the truth: There is a direct line from what's happening in Russia and Ukraine to what's happening here at home. And that's what MoJo's Monika Bauerlein writes about in "Their Fight Is Our Fight" to unpack the information war we find ourselves in and share a few examples to show why the power of independent, reader-supported journalism is such a threat to authoritarians.

Corrupt leaders the world over can (and will) try to shut down the truth, but when the truth has millions of people on its side, you can't keep it down for good. And there's no more powerful or urgent argument for your support of Mother Jones' journalism right now than that. We need to raise about $450,000 to hit our online fundraising budget in these next few months, so please read more from Monika and pitch in if you can.

payment methods

REAL QUICK, REAL URGENT

Minority rule, corruption, disinformation, attacks on those who dare tell the truth: There is a direct line from what's happening in Russia and Ukraine to what's happening here at home. And that's what MoJo's Monika Bauerlein writes about in "Their Fight Is Our Fight" to unpack the information war we find ourselves in and share a few examples to show why the power of independent, reader-supported journalism is such a threat to authoritarians.

Corrupt leaders the world over can (and will) try to shut down the truth, but when the truth has millions of people on its side, you can't keep it down for good. And there's no more powerful or urgent argument for your support of Mother Jones' journalism right now than that. We need to raise about $450,000 to hit our online fundraising budget in these next few months, so please read more from Monika and pitch in if you can.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate