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In November 1992, Bill Clinton was elected as the 42nd president of the United States. Born William Jefferson Clinton, he is the only United States president from the state of Arkansas. Clinton was reelected in 1996 and served eight years as president in a period of unparalleled economic prosperity for the United States. He retired in January 2001 after leaving office, but the impact of his presidency didn’t stop there. Clinton wrote an autobiography entitled “My Life” that was released in 2004, and that same year, the William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum opened in Little Rock.
The tradition of building presidential libraries began with President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1939, he donated both personal and presidential papers from his time in office to the U.S. government. Before this, presidential papers and other articles were donated haphazardly to various museums or given to private citizens. Some have ended up in the Library of Congress, but other important presidential records are permanently lost, and some were purposefully destroyed.
Roosevelt also designated part of his estate in Hyde Park in New York to house the collection. The funds for this first presidential library were raised privately through a non-profit organization. The library was finished in 1941 and Roosevelt asked the National Archives to administer the library. President Harry S. Truman also decided to build a library, but he wanted to take the idea further. He encouraged Congress to pass the Presidential Libraries Act, which would allow each president to establish a library to archive presidential papers and other items after leaving office. The money for the libraries would be raised privately, but the administration would be handed to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).
The congressional act passed in 1955. However, until 1978, presidential papers were considered the property of the president, who had the power to decide what to do with them once out of office. That changed with the passage of the Presidential Records Act in 1978. The act shifted ownership of presidential papers away from private ownership to public. The records from 1981 on became property of the federal government.
NARA currently oversees 15 presidential libraries. The libraries are usually built in the home state of the president, although it’s not a requirement. For example, President Obama decided to have his library in Chicago. And though President Trump has yet to build a library, it is rumored it will be in Florida. President Clinton, though, as a two-time governor of Arkansas, chose Little Rock as the location of his presidential library. Construction began in 2001 on land given by the city of Little Rock. The 31-acre park was once the location of the Choctaw Railway Station. Clinton’s vision for the museum was for it to be “a bridge to the 21st century.” The building was designed by James Polshek of New York. It was designed to include full-scale replicas of the Oval Office as President Clinton maintained it during his tenure as president, as well as the Cabinet Room.
A visit to the museum moves visitors through a timeline of President Clinton’s two terms in office. The museum displays items and records from 1993 to 2000. The museum and library have almost 80 million paper documents, nearly 2 million photos, 12,500 videos and over 6,000 audio tapes. Museum visitors won’t see every item on display, though. The timeline is a permanent exhibit, and there are numerous alcoves to allow for temporary exhibits. The museum staff rotates items through these displays. Many of the museum items are gifts that were given while Clinton was in office, including 10,000 objects and works of art.
The displays are focused on themes common to the Clinton presidency, including Clinton’s vision for better education, access to health care for all, and globalization. Visitors will also find detailed displays on Clinton’s life before the presidency, his campaign, and what life was like as a family in the White House. “People’s Gifts” is a display of some of the thousands of gifts given to the Clintons during the eight years Clinton held office.
The Clinton Presidential Library contains the archives of President Clinton. This includes 78 million records, 20 million emails, 2.6 million photos, and many more documents. The library is available for research requests. It also includes a digital library of items that can be viewed online, such as President Clinton’s daily schedule and his trip to Africa in 1998. Some documents are not yet available to the public, but documents can be requested under the Freedom of Information Act or petitioned for declassification. The educational department at the museum has online programs for school programs for all grade levels, lesson plans, teacher workshops and lifelong learner workshops.
The Clinton Presidential Library and Museum isn’t the only building located on the 31-acre riverfront park. The William J. Clinton Presidential Foundation, the Clinton School of Public Service, and the Rock Island Bridge are here as well. The Clinton Foundation works to continue President Clinton’s initiatives on public health, education, the environment and public service. The Clinton School of Public Service is part of the University of Arkansas system and offers a master’s degree in Public Service. The Rock Island Bridge was once a lift-span bridge built in 1899. It was converted to a pedestrian bridge in 2011 to complement the presidential center and park. Visitors can also visit the Clinton Museum Store in the lobby of the museum or eat at 42 Bar and Table, a restaurant located inside the Clinton Presidential Center and named, of course, for the 42nd president of the United States.
Find out more about visiting the William J. Clinton Presidential Museum and Library at clintonlibrary.gov or follow the Clinton Presidential Center Facebook page. On certain days, the museum is free to enter. These dates include President’s Day and the Saturday before Clinton’s birthday on August 19. Veterans and active service members may enter the museum for free on Veterans Day, and active duty service members may always enter the museum for free. Check the museum website for other entry fees, hours of operation, and more information.
Although Bill Clinton was president of the United States over 20 years ago, his legacy continues through the William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum.
Former presidents Bill Clinton, George H. Bush, George W. Bush, and Jimmy Carter at the Clinton Library Dedication.
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